July 14, 2020

Supreme Court Term Recap


  • The Supreme Court decided major cases this term involving immigration, antidiscrimination law, regulation, criminal law, and social issues.
  • The court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in several cases involving religious freedom.
  • The court overturned the administration’s rescission of the DACA program and ruled the CFPB’s leadership structure unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court recently closed out its 2019-20 term, leaving in its wake a number of major decisions. The court made several significant rulings in June, including:

  • The Trump administration’s rescission of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s prohibition on arbitrary and capricious rulemaking.

  • The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s leadership structure violated the constitutional separation of powers.

  • Several religious freedom cases: affirming the administration’s power to exempt organizations with religious or moral objections to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate; striking down state “Blaine Amendments” preventing the use of public funds to support parochial schools; and expanding the ministerial exemption for religious-school teachers.

Issues Addressed by SCOTUS This Term


Separation of Powers

On June 29, the court held in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB that the bureau’s leadership structure — a sole director, removable only for cause, controlling an agency with significant power to regulate the private sector — violated the constitutional separation of powers. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the opinion of the court, which split into a number of partial concurrences and dissents. Ultimately, five justices ruled that the structure was unconstitutional, and seven justices ruled that the leadership provisions of the CFPB are severable from the rest of the questions about the agency. That means the CFPB will continue to operate, but the president can remove its director at will.

The court decided two cases on July 9 relating to President Trump’s financial records. In Trump v. Vance, the court held that presidents do not enjoy categorical immunity from state criminal grand jury subpoenas and are not insulated by a heightened standard for these subpoenas. The case will continue in lower courts, where the president can claim that complying with the subpoena would interfere with his ability to carry out his job. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the controlling opinion for himself and the four Democrat-appointed justices. Justice Kavanaugh concurred in the judgment in an opinion joined by Justice Gorsuch. Justices Alito and Thomas dissented.

In Trump v. Mazars USA, the court ruled that lower courts did not adequately consider separation of powers concerns in upholding congressional subpoenas for President Trump’s personal financial records. The court remanded the case for further consideration by lower courts, likely postponing any final outcome until after the 2020 presidential election. Chief Justice Robert wrote the controlling opinion for himself, the four Democrat-appointed justices, and Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh. Justices Alito and Thomas dissented.

DACA Rescission Reversed

In a 5-4 decision on June 18, the court ruled that the Trump administration’s rescission of DACA violated the Administrative Procedure Act’s prohibition on arbitrary and capricious rulemaking. In 2017, the Trump administration announced it would rescind President Obama’s DACA program. In January 2018, in response to federal court orders, the Department of Homeland Security said it would accept DACA renewal applications.

The majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, found that DHS’ only explanation for the 2017 rescission was the administration’s concern that DACA was illegal based on earlier litigation concerning the related Deferred Action for the Parents of Americans program. Once the 9th Circuit decided DACA was legal, it ruled that DHS no longer had a reasonable explanation for rescinding the program. The government had argued that programs like DACA are, by their own terms, exercises of agency discretion, so the APA should not apply.

Because the majority overturned the rescission based on a procedural defect, DHS could reimpose the rescission if the agency can offer sufficient substantive justification for the action. People who have already been granted deferred removal under DACA can continue to renew that deferral.

Social Issues

On June 15, the court ruled in a 6-3 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects gay and transgender workers from workplace discrimination. Title VII of the act prohibits discrimination on the basis of “sex,” and the court reasoned that firing an employee for sexual orientation or transgender status amounted to firing based on sex. Justices Thomas and Alito dissented on the grounds that the firings are not based on sex. Justice Kavanaugh dissented because, while firing based on sexual orientation or gender identity could literally involve firing based on sex, that was clearly not the ordinary meaning of discrimination based on sex in 1964.

The court held in a 5-4 ruling on June 29 that a Louisiana statute requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital imposed an undue burden on the constitutional right to abortion. Justice Breyer, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan wrote the opinion of the court. Chief Justice Roberts wrote a concurring opinion, while the rest of the justices each wrote a dissent.

Religious Freedom

In another 5-4 case, Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, the court ruled that Montana violated the First Amendment by excluding religious schools from a state-funded scholarship program. Montana’s constitution contains a prohibition on aid to a school controlled by a “church, sect, or denomination,” prompting the state’s Department of Revenue to issue a rule prohibiting use of a tax-credit scholarship for religious institutions. The court held that the Montana constitutional provision, as applied to the state’s scholarship program, violated the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the majority opinion, joined by the four other Republican-appointed justices.

On July 8, the court ruled 7-2 in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru to apply the “ministerial exemption” to elementary school teachers at a Catholic school. The ministerial exemption generally bars civil courts from interfering in the internal leadership of religious institutions, including employment-discrimination claims involving an employee involved in religious or ministerial employment. In this case, the court held that the exemption includes elementary school teachers at a religious school whose jobs involved leading prayers and teaching a faith-based curriculum. The two dissenters were Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor.

A 7-2 split of justices held in the case Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania that the federal government could allow employers to deny contraception coverage to female workers on religious or moral grounds. Justice Thomas, writing for himself, Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh, held that the Affordable Care Act’s grant of authority to the federal government allowed it to determine whether exceptions were appropriate for general preventative care and screening requirements for employers. Justices Kagan and Breyer concurred in the judgment on the grounds that “Chevron” deference — directing courts to uphold reasonable agency interpretations in cases of statutory ambiguity — should apply to this case. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.

Issue Tag: Judiciary