10 Supreme Court cases to watch in 2017

The Supreme Court will return to the bench on January 9, 2017 as it starts a new calendar year. Here are cases to watch that the Justices will hear, or likely hear, before the end of April.

Normally, the Justices wrap up arguments in cases in April, with the final decisions for a term announced in late June. However, with a vacancy on the bench to be filled in early 2017, it remains to be seen when some cases will be scheduled and heard in Washington.

Here is a list of 10 cases being followed by court watchers as potentially significant:

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (scheduled for arguments, January 11)

The case addresses the following question: “What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?”

A 15-year-old Littleton, Colo., student, identified only as Endrew F. (his parents call him “Drew”), is challenging a federal appeals court ruling. The youth is autistic and has attention deficit disorder, compromising his verbal and non-verbal communications skills.

When his parents and school officials couldn’t agree on a plan for him in public schools, he was placed in a private school that specializes in teaching autistic students. The family then sued to recover the private school tuition, contending that the school district was obliged to pay because it failed to provide Drew with an adequate educational opportunity. A trial judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit denied the challenge, finding that the law only required a benefit just above the trivial, and that Drew had done a bit better than that in public school.

Lee v. Tam (scheduled for arguments, January 18)

Lee v. Tam involves an appeal by the federal Patent and Trademark Office, seeking to have the Supreme Court revive a disparagement law. It has been struck down by a federal appeals court, in a case involving a rock music band that wanted to register its name, the SLANTS, for protection as a trademark. The denial of that registration, the appeals court said, stifled the band’s free speech rights.

The law against disparaging trademarks has existed since 1946, but the Supreme Court has never interpreted its meaning or scope. That has meant that the Patent and Trademark Office had wide discretion about what is banned under the law.

Lawyers for the Washington Redskins football team had tried to link an appeal about a trademark ban on the team’s name to the Lee v. Tam case, but the appeal was denied by the Court in October and a related federal court case is on hold, pending the outcome of the Lee v. Tam case.

Gloucester County School Board v. G.G. (to be scheduled)

The Court for the first time takes on the question of transgender rights in the case of Gloucester County School Board v. G.G.

The Justices will consider the appeal of a county school board in Virginia, challenging a federal appeals court ruling that gave a 17-year-old transgender boy a right to use the school restroom that conforms to his gender identity.

Specifically, the order grants review of two questions. One of those is the legality of the federal government’s view that the federal law banning sex bias in federally funded education programs also forbids discrimination based on gender identity. If the final decision does settle that issue, it could be the court’s first major ruling on the transgender rights controversy – the latest dispute over civil rights.

But the second question to be reviewed, if the decision goes against the government position, could make it unlikely the question about transgender rights will be decided. That other question tests whether the government announced its policy on transgender rights in the procedurally proper way. A ruling against the policy declaration would send this case back to the federal appeals court, which had relied on the declaration in ruling in favor of the transgender boy’s rights.

Los Angeles County v. Mendez (to be scheduled)

The case centers on a legal rule that one federal appeals court has adopted, but others refuse to follow. It takes away the legal immunity of policeofficers for the use of “excessive force” – here, shooting two homeless people in the shed they occupied – if the officers’ actions provoked a violent response. The response at issue in this case was that one of the individuals who was shot and wounded raised a BB gun and pointed it at officers after they had broken into the shed without a search warrant.

In general, police have legal immunity for their actions in the line of duty, unless they violate someone’s clearly established constitutional rights. Over the years, courts have taken differing approaches on when such rights have been spelled out clearly. Police shootings in recent years have been involved more often in such cases.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Pauley (to be scheduled)

The Supreme Court seeks to answer the question of whether religiously affiliated schools can be constitutionally denied equal access to a government benefit, even if the benefit has nothing to do with matters of faith.

At issue is a program in Missouri that provides rubberized material for school playgrounds, made out of old tires. Missouri’s constitution bars parochial schools from such public benefits, explicitly because of the Missouri constitution’s “Blaine Amendment,” first adopted in 1875. The amendment still reads in part: “No money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination or religion”

The church appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that “no public benefit could be further removed from the state’s anti-establishment concerns than a grant for safe rubber playground surfaces that serve no religious function or purpose.”

Murr v. Wisconsin (to be scheduled)

The Supreme Court will look back at one of its big decisions from the 1970s when it hears a dispute involving four family members and the state of Wisconsin. In 1978, Justice William Brennan wrote for a 6-3 majority in the Penn Central v. New York City case that redefined property rights under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.

In Murr v. Wisconsin, the Murr family has owned two riverfront lots since the 1960s; one of the lots contained a vacation cottage; the other lot wasn’t developed. The parents bought the two lots originally, and they were conveyed to four of their children in 1994 and 1995.

In 2004, when the children began to explore selling the empty lot to pay for improvements in the cottage, they found out that a zoning law established in 1975 barred the children from selling the empty lot separate from the cottage. The zoning law also prohibited the development of the empty lot because it didn’t meet minimum size requirements for an independent lot.

The family’s lawyers cited another Supreme Court decision, Lucas v. South Carolina Coastal Council (1992), which said that the denial of all economic use of a property by a government regulation was a taking under the Fifth Amendment and required just compensation. The state government argued that the properties should be considered as a “whole” in the takings analysis, citing the Penn Central decision

Hernández v. Mesa (scheduled for February 21)

The United States Supreme Court said in October it would accept an appeal from the family of a boy from Mexico who was fatally shot by a U.S. Border Patrol officer. Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, 15, died in 2010 as he stood on Mexican soil by a border officer who fired his gun while on United States soil in Texas. The agent claimed Hernandez and others were throwing rocks at him.

Hernandez’s family sued the agent for damages, but in 2015 the Fifth Circuit appeals court said the family had no standing to sue because the teen was a Mexican citizen and not protected by the Fifth Amendment under its Due Process clause or by the Fourth Amendment. The full appeals court had unanimously ruled in favor of the agent.

The Supreme Court took the appeal and also added a question about determining if the parents had a constitutional right to sue a Border Patrol officer.

TC Heartland LLC v. Kraft Foods (to be scheduled)

In a highly significant case involving patent law, the Court agreed to decide where lawsuits claiming infringement of a patent can be filed. In recent years, so-called “patent trolls,” who buy patents just to try to turn them into money-makers by suing others for infringement damages, have been concentrating the filling of their cases in just a few federal courts where they believe their claim will get a friendly reception. A surprising proportion of those cases is being filed in just one federal court in Texas.

The issue of the proper location for infringement lawsuits arose in a patent dispute between an Indiana food company — Heartland Food Group — that produces water products that are sweetened or flavored. It has been sued in Delaware for infringement by the giant Kraft Foods Group because Kraft is incorporated there, but Heartland has no place of business in that state — for decades, the basis for court jurisdiction over a patent infringement case. This case is not about “patent trolling,” as such, but that kind of legal maneuvering was a main part of Heartland’s appeal, and apparently was a major factor in the Justices’ willingness to rule on the venue issue.

Turner v. United States and Overton v. United States (to be scheduled)

These two cases are related to a gruesome murder in the nation’s capital more than three decades ago, when all but one of those found guilty were teenagers. Their two appeals, combined in a single ruling, could clarify the constitutional duty of prosecutors to hand over to defense lawyers items of evidence that could help gain a not-guilty verdict.

At issue is the constitutional duty that the Supreme Court imposed on prosecutors in a 1963 decision, Brady v. Maryland. Although that duty has been binding now for more than a half-century, the new appeals argued that lower courts remain uncertain about how to weigh the significance of evidence that prosecutors had withheld.

In order to prove a violation of the Brady decision, a suspect’s defense lawyer must show that the withheld evidence was likely to have altered the outcome of the trial if it had been brought out there. In technical terms, the evidence must be shown to be “material” to the outcome.

In their appeals, one by six of those convicted and another by a seventh, their lawyers protested that a series of findings that turned up in the years after the 1985 trial was over had been withheld by prosecutors. Rather than limiting review to those specific claims, the Court said it would look at their cases as a whole, to see if their convictions should be overturned.

Microsoft v. Baker (to be scheduled)

This case addresses an issue involving class-action lawsuits that the late Justice Antonin Scalia had complained about in other decisions.

In Microsoft v. Baker, a group of consumers in Washington State sued Microsoft, complaining that its Xbox 360 device had a defect that caused an optical disc to spin out of control, making the machine unplayable.

The group sued as a class, since their individual claims would have been for small amounts, and pursuing them individually wasn’t feasible. The group then lost the lawsuit in a trial court but they also used a legal option called a voluntary dismissal of a claim with prejudice to keep the case alive.

The court accepted the Microsoft appeal to clear up a conflict among lower courts on the legality of the dismiss-then-appeal question.