What Do Recent Supreme Court Rulings Mean?

Law expert Alan Morrison explains some of the biggest decisions the justices made in the last week.

Supreme Court
June 30, 2014
The U.S. Supreme Court concluded its 2013-14 term with rulings on several landmark cases. The justices made decisions that will impact the future of cell phone privacy, television streaming services, abortion protests, Affordable Care Act coverage and more. Professorial Lecturer and Lerner Family Associate Dean for Public Interest and Public Service Law Alan Morrison took George Washington Today through the intricacies of some of the most highly publicized cases and explained what the rulings might mean for the legal system moving forward.
Cell Phone Privacy
The case: “The first case, Riley v. California, began after police pulled over a man and connected him to a street gang and a shooting after searching his smartphone. The second case, United States v. Wurie, involved authorities looking through another man’s call log after an arrest.”
What the ruling means: “The court unanimously decided that the police have no right to search your cellphone unless they get a warrant. The justices declined to differentiate among the types of cellphones or the types of information that might be on the phone, but set forth a blanket rule that no searches are permissible under the Fourth Amendment. Although that’s an easy rule for the police to follow, it will surely make life more difficult for law enforcement.”
“The question that arises is whether that approach to privacy will hold in an area that the court has treated differently—for example, border searches. If you come back into the country from a trip and you have a computer, will the customs authorities be allowed to search your computer the way they search your luggage? If it’s unconstitutional to search your cellphone without a warrant, do you surrender all your rights at the border for your cellphone and computer?”
Broadcast Television
The case: “This was an effort by a new company, Aereo, to try to find ways to provide programs on television to people who wanted to stream them on their cellphones, tablets or computers. The question was whether the Copyright Act forbade Aereo from doing this without paying for it."
What the ruling means: “The majority of the court said that Aereo had a sufficient enough role in the process by which others viewed the programs that its conduct was prohibited by the copyright law. Aereo will have to either go out of business or start paying reasonable royalties. The message is loud and clear to other streaming companies—efforts to evade the copyright laws are not going to be met with much favor in the court.”
Protests Near Abortion Clinics
The case: “There had been a law in Massachusetts designed to allow women to get in and out of abortion clinics without undue interference by protesters, who the court defined as loud and ruckus. It was hard to enforce because you had to prove people were knowingly interfering with women. The plaintiffs in McCullen v. Coakley said they were low-key ‘counselors’ who were just trying to talk. In 2007, the Massachusetts legislature enacted a statute to enforce the prior law, and it created a buffer zone with a 35-foot radius around the entrance to abortion clinics.”
What the ruling means: “The problem for the court was that these buffer rules cut off more speech than was justified and, hence, they violated the First Amendment. A majority of the court said that Massachusetts would have to go back and try again with the 2007 law, and the result was to strike it down. The justices who concurred in the ruling seemed to have gone further and suggested that essentially none of these statutes can be constitutional—the only thing you can do is prevent people from being harassed. Whether the Massachusetts legislature will go back again to revise the statute or resort to lawsuits against people who are interfering remains to be seen. Everyone recognized the rights of people protesting to get their message out, but everyone also recognized that you cannot physically interfere with or harass people going into the abortion clinic. The question is what the lines between those two things are, and defining the lines in a statute is very hard to do.
Affordable Care Act Coverage
The case: “The issue is whether family-owned, for-profit corporations whose owners object to paying for contraception services on religious grounds are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act requires the government to accommodate religious beliefs by issuing rules that are the least restrictive means of impinging on those beliefs.”
What the ruling means: “The court essentially said that the government had less burdensome ways of ensuring that female employees and their families receive a range of contraceptive services under the Affordable Care Act. These options include having the government pay for those services or having the corporation’s insurance company absorb them, which the majority suggested would be almost costless because good contraception results in fewer pregnancies and, therefore, less expenses. The majority painted an optimistic picture: Nothing much will change for the women, and the company will not have to pay for services that offend its owners’ religious beliefs. Whether that will materialize is an open question. The ACA is a complicated statute, but it is hard to believe that the alternatives will produce the same level of service at no extra cost to anyone. On the other hand, the rules for nonprofit religious organizations, which the majority seemed to endorse, do provide significant accommodation at apparently very little cost, so it is possible that the impact of the ruling on both costs and services will be minimal.”