WASHINGTON-During his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama delivered an in-your-face rebuke of the Supreme Court's campaign finance decision, while the justices sat before him and Democratic lawmakers around them stood and applauded, some leaning over to clap closer to the justices' ears. Chief Justice John Roberts said afterward, "To the extent the State of the Union has degenerated into a political pep rally, I'm not sure why we're there." Roberts along with Justice Samuel Alito, who mouthed, "Not true," to the president's critiques, reportedly do not plan to attend the president's upcoming State of the Union address.
While the high court tries to stay out of the swirl of Washington politics, it has provided another year's worth of controversial decisions.
A surprising decision in June means that a Christian student group won't be recognized on campus any longer. The court ruled 5-4 against the Christian Legal Society, which the University of California Hastings School of Law barred because it required voting members to agree to a statement of faith. The school's policy forbids student groups to have membership requirements like faith statements.
While the court found that policy to be constitutional, several justices criticized it as "ill-advised" and "weird" because it would require a Democratic group to admit Republicans into membership, for example.
Court scholars had expected the court to rule in the Christian group's favor, as it had in past instances of universities banning Christian groups, like the 1995 Rosenberger v. University of Virginia case. But other similar cases are expected to come before the court soon, giving Christian student groups another shot. The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that the University of Wisconsin had wrongly denied funding to a Catholic student group, Badger Catholic, based on its religious commitments. The school has appealed the decision to the high court.
In another decision, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to allow the Mojave cross, built more than 75 years ago to honor World War I dead, to stand in the California desert. But just after the long-running case was decided, the cross itself was stolen and has not been replaced. Justice Anthony Kennedy proved to be the swing vote in both the cross and Christian student group cases, a role that is unlikely to change even with a new liberal justice.
The court welcomed that justice, Elena Kagan, for its fall term. Kagan was previously the U.S. solicitor general, the attorney that argues on the government's behalf before the court. She replaced 90-year-old retiring Justice John Paul Stevens. Despite her lack of experience as a judge and her background as a political adviser in the Clinton White House, Kagan sailed through her confirmation hearings, winning the support of five Republican senators. Once Kagan took her seat on the court in October, she had to recuse herself from many of the cases because of her work as solicitor general, giving conservatives on the court more of an upper hand.
One of the major fall cases from which Kagan had to recuse herself was U.S. Chamber of Commerce v. Whiting, which concerns whether Arizona's employment laws on immigration can trump federal law, a case that, once decided, could set precedent for whether states can create immigration laws that preempt federal laws.
In its fall term the court also heard cases regarding Arizona's tuition tax credit for private religious schools and Westboro Baptist Church's right to protest at military funerals. The court will likely issue its rulings on those cases by next summer.