The Supreme Court is poised for a blockbuster year in 2015—and the list of high-profile cases could keep growing.
Already, the Court is set to rule in a case that threatens to wreak havoc on Obamacare. The justices are also considering questions of religious freedom, free speech, and limits on political fundraising.
That mix of cases poses big risks for liberals, who were caught off guard by the Court's enthusiasm for another high-stakes Obamacare battle. And under Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court has steadily chipped away at campaign-finance limits.
But Republican governors and social conservatives also have a lot on the line: As soon as the justices return from their holiday break, they'll have to decide whether to take up same-sex marriage once again—a step many legal observers believe the Court will simply have to take, and one that could clear the way for same-sex couples to legally marry in every state.
Here are the highest-profile issues the Court will likely tackle just in the first six months of 2015, before the current term ends around the end of June.
The justices will hear oral arguments March 4 in a lawsuit that threatens to cripple the health care law, just three years after Chief Justice John Roberts helped save it. This time, the challengers want the Court to invalidate the law's premium subsidies in states that didn't set up their own insurance exchanges. Most states didn't establish their own exchanges, and more than 80 percent of enrollees are getting subsidies—so a win for the challengers here would likely make insurance unaffordable for about 5 million people and could make insurance markets unstable in most of the country.
Obamacare's supporters are nervous about this case, King v. Burwell, not only because of its implications, but because of the way the Supreme Court decided to hear it. The justices took up the Obamacare case much earlier than many observers had expected, opting not to wait for a lower-court ruling that likely would have strengthened the Obama administration's hand.
The fact that the Supreme Court decided to jump in without waiting for that lower-court ruling was seen as a sign that the Court's conservative bloc is itching for another shot at the Affordable Care Act. The big question now is whether Roberts will save the law again.
Same-sex marriage equality
The Court hasn't yet said whether it will act on the latest round of appeals in same-sex marriage cases, but just about everyone wants it to. When the justices meet on Jan. 9 for a private conference to decide which cases they want to consider, challenges to several states' marriage laws will be on the schedule—and even more states have asked the judges to just settle the marriage-equality question once and for all.
The Court had tried to stay away from the issue since its landmark rulings last year that struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act and opened the door to same-sex marriage in the states without mandating it.
When a federal Appeals Court upheld same-sex marriage in several states, the justices declined to hear an appeal. But then the Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit upheld bans on same-sex marriage in Michigan and Kentucky, as well as state laws in Ohio and Tennessee. So now the Appeals Courts are divided over the constitutionality of state laws banning same-sex marriage, and almost all of the states in question have asked the Supreme Court to settle the issue for good. Given the patchwork of laws from state to state, many legal observers say it'll be hard for the Court to stay on the sidelines this time.
Religious liberty was the defining issue of 2014's biggest ruling—the Hobby Lobby decision involving Obamacare's contraception mandate—and it's back in a big way this term. The Court has already heard oral arguments in a suit filed by an Arkansas inmate who wants to grow a beard, in accordance with his Muslim faith but in violation of prison rules. During oral arguments, the justices reportedly seemed to be siding with the inmate, questioning whether the prison system could ensure inmates' safety without such strict rules against beards.
The Court has agreed to hear a second, similar case, but hasn't yet scheduled oral arguments. This one concerns a woman who was denied a job at an Abercrombie & Fitch store because the head scarf she wore, as a practicing Muslim, wasn't consistent with the company's "Look Policy." The question in the case is whether a business can discriminate against someone's religion if it didn't know that a religious accommodation was needed.
Freedom of speech
The Court has teed up three potentially significant cases on freedom of speech under the First Amendment—including one that wades into the Roberts Court's favorite free-speech subject: campaign finance law.
The first, in which the justices have already heard oral arguments, concerns social-networking sites and asks what type of messages constitute a "threat." The case concerns a man, Anthony Elonis, who posted violent Facebook messages about an ex-wife, including some that discussed killing her. But the question is whether those messages meet the legal standard for a "threat," which says that a "reasonable person" must conclude that the person making the statement is actually expressing an intent to commit violence.
The second free-speech case the Court has agreed to hear deals with a Florida law that prohibits judicial candidates from personally soliciting campaign contributions—they have to set up a fundraising committee, to avoid situations in which a person wins and becomes a judge, then has to try to remain impartial while deciding a case that involves a major donor. The Roberts Court hasn't found many campaign finance laws it likes, and critics fear that a ruling against Florida's fundraising ban would have broader national implications that threaten judges' independence.
Finally, there's the free-speech issue that never dies: the Confederate flag. Officials in Texas rejected a proposed license-plate design from a group called Sons of Confederate Veterans, which, unsurprisingly, included the Confederate flag. The state said the license plate would conjure up associations with "expressions of hate," but a lower court said the design should have been allowed. Now the Supreme Court will have to decide who's right.