Nine Judges And Tough Decisions

June 29, 2018

The Supreme Court has nine judges, and this month, they were rather busy reviewing landmark cases and delivering verdicts. Here we discuss four of those cases:

Janus v. American Federation

This case was about unions, and more specifically, the fees collected from union members. But first, what is a union anyway? Well, it’s an organized group of workers that negotiates for and protects their rights and interests. There are many types of unions, including teacher unions and police officer unions. What sorts of things do they negotiate for? Salaries, for one. Unions represent their members and ensure fair and appropriate wages. Sounds good so far, right? Union members pay a membership fee, but not everyone needs to be a member to get the benefits negotiated by a union. You see, unions are supposed to represent all of its members, so if they negotiate higher wages for police officers, for example, even the police officers who are not members might receive increased pay as well. But can unions force people to pay membership fees?

That was discussed in court when Mark Janus, a state government worker in Illinois, sued his union. Janus did not agree with the position taken by his union during negotiations and therefore did not want to pay union fees. The union argued that it needs funds from members so it can better serve the community. Janus, on the other hand, wanted the choice to pay his membership fees.

So what did the Supreme Court decide? Four justices voted against unions collecting fees from nonmembers, and four justices voted to keep the status quo, or to allow unions to continue collecting fees. The deciding vote was cast by Justice Gorsuch, leaving the verdict 5-4 in favor of Mr. Janus, thus prohibiting unions from collecting membership fees.

Hawaii v. Trump

By Jacques Descloitres – File:Hawaje.jpgOriginal source: NASA. Image courtesy Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. (IotD Date: 2003-06-03. IotD ID: 15304), Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11359528

When President Trump put a travel ban into effect prohibiting people from predominantly Muslim countries from entering the US, the state of Hawaii decided to sue the President, claiming he had violated the constitution by creating a ban that is against freedom of religious protection.

In a 5-4 decision, the case was rejected because, per Chief Justice Roberts’ statement, the text of the ban does not include a religion but rather a set of countries from where people can’t travel to the United States. Who cast the deciding vote? Justice Gorsuch was again the deciding vote.

Carpenter v. United States

By (Abhi (talk)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons
If you allow a cell phone company to track your location via GPS (Global Positioning System), is that information yours or the company’s? This question was discussed in a case that started in 2010. A string of robberies in cell phone stores in Michigan and Ohio sparked a hunt for the thieves. Eventually, the police arrested four men in connection with the robbery, including Timothy Carpenter. The police used cell phone tower records to track the robbers’ location, thus proving that they were indeed involved. Mystery solved? Not quite. The question central to this case was whether the police got a warrant to obtain those cell phone records? It turns out, the police did not have a warrant, and that spurred Mr. Carpenter to file a case, indicating breach of his private information.

Interestingly, the courts added that the ruling posed a unique situation: cell phone use is not voluntary but necessary in today’s times. Updating the law to reflect today’s world was cheered by many privacy experts.

The verdict? 5-4 again! The four dissenting (or disagreeing) justices filed separate statements.

South Dakota v. Wayfair

When you buy something in a store, you usually have to pay sales tax, right? But what about when you buy from online stores? The state of South Dakota wanted to apply sales tax when its citizens bought anything, online or otherwise. The state’s argument was that taxes go toward many services that the state provides, and the state believed it would lose millions of dollars without online sales tax.

The verdict was 5-4 in favor of South Dakota, allowing the state to collect tax from online stores like Wayfair who sell in states where they are not physically located.