As the Supreme Court sprints to the end of the 2018-2019 term this month, it is facing decisions in cases that could fundamentally rewrite the way elections are conducted.
The justices also have high-profile cases on a World War I memorial cross on public lands, a controversial trademark claim and a challenge to federal sex-offender registry requirements.
All told, the justices heard arguments in 72 cases this year, and have released rulings on 44 of them, leaving a massive amount of business still be conducted before they close up shop at the end of this month.
Though the term hasn’t had as many high-profile cases as last year’s legal battles over the president’s travel ban and whether a Christian baker can be forced to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, this year’s disputes could have significant impacts on political representation.
The two most anticipated rulings still to come are somewhat intertwined, and involve whether the Trump administration acted too rashly in adding a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and whether political parties in state legislatures have gone too far in looking at political advantage when they redraw their legislative district maps.
Lucas Powe, a law professor at the University of Texas, said the census case “dwarfs everything else.”
“If the court upholds the citizenship question and then continues to duck on partisan gerrymandering it will allow the Republican Party to rig elections for the next decade,” he added.
Multiple lower courts ruled that the Trump administration broke procedural law when it added the citizenship question into the 2020 count.
The justices sped the case to issue a ruling this year.
That a citizenship question is legal is not in doubt. It appeared on the full census until 1950, and has been part of the census long form and now the annual American Community Survey.
But civil liberties groups say the Trump administration’s motives for adding the question are suspect, and say top officials ignored the advice of experts who said it will chill Hispanics’ and illegal immigrants’ desire to respond to the count.
Josh Blackman, a professor at South Texas College of Law, predicted the justices would send the census case back to the lower courts with instructions to focus on the core legal issues and to disregard extraneous evidence about motives and actions.
That would be a win for the government.
Since voting districts are drawn based on population counts from the census, any decline in participation could affect the size of state delegations in Congress, and how maps are drawn to divide them up into districts.
The other major elections-related case still pending before the justices also deals with line-drawing and to what extent state legislatures can consider political advantage when producing their maps.
The high court heard a similar case in its 2017-2018 term but side-stepped the issue, remanding the case back for more development.
This term the court heard cases out of North Carolina, where Democrats say that despite being virtually tied in the number of voters, they only won three of 13 congressional districts, and in Maryland, where Republicans say they’ve been gerrymandered into holding just one of the state’s eight seats.
The justices also have a case that could decide whether states can bring separate charges against someone already cleared of federal crimes for the same act. Anti-Trump lawyers are watching that case to see whether states can bring charges against people even if they’ve been pardoned by the president.
Court-watchers will also look to see how the justices finesse a case involving a designer who wants the government to issue a trademark for his FUCT brand of clothing. During oral argument, the lawyers and justices danced around pronouncing the word which, when said out loud, approximates a vulgarity.
And the justices are slated to grapple with the thorny intersection between religion, war memorials and public property in a case involving a Latin cross placed at a major intersection in suburban Maryland, commemorating Americans who died in World War I.
Opponents say it’s tough to view the cross as anything other than a state endorsement of the key symbol of Christianity.
Defenders say it was erected in 1925 by families of those who died, and it mimics the same cross that adorned their children’s graves in war cemeteries in France.
Robert Tuttle, a law professor at George Washington University, said he thinks the justices will be divided over the decision with possibly ruling narrowly to allow the Bladensburg cross to stay put. He said, though, a narrow judgment would not apply to other religious monuments.
“The implications of the cross case could be huge, could be minor, nobody knows,” he said.
• Alex Swoyer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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