U.S. Supreme Court takes up presidential Electoral College dispute

By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – As the 2020 race heats up, the Supreme Court agreed on Friday to hear a dispute involving the complex U.S. presidential election system focusing on whether Electoral College electors are free to break their pledges to back the candidate who wins their state’s popular vote, an act that could upend an election.

The Supreme Court will take up appeals in two cases – from Washington state and Colorado – involving electors who decided to vote in the Electoral College process for someone other than Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016 even though she won the popular vote in their states.

The justices will determine if such so-called faithless electors have the discretion to cast Electoral College votes as they see fit or whether states can impose restrictions including with penalties. The case is expected to be argued in April and decided by the end of June.

President Donald Trump is seeking re-election on Nov. 3, with a field of Democrats seeking their party’s nomination to challenge him. His administration did not take a side in either case.

“We are glad the Supreme Court has recognized the paramount importance of clearly determining the rules of the road for presidential electors for the upcoming election and all future elections,” said Lawrence Lessig, a lawyer for the faithless electors sanctioned in Washington and Colorado.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, said she hopes the justices will let states enforce their laws.

“Unelected and unaccountable presidential electors should not be allowed to decide the presidential election without regard to voters’ choices and state law,” Griswold said.

The dispute involves the U.S. presidential election system set out in the U.S. Constitution in which the winner is determined not by amassing a majority of the national popular vote but by securing a majority of the electoral votes that are allotted to the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

Individuals who serve as Electoral College electors – typically party loyalists – cast these votes. All states, with the exception of Maine and Nebraska, have a winner-takes-all system awarding all electors to the presidential candidate who wins the state’s popular vote.

The number of electors in each state is the sum of its two U.S. senators and its number of members in the House of Representatives, based on population size. The District of Columbia, which is not a state, is allotted three electors.

Typically an overlooked formality, the Electoral College took on greater importance after the 2016 election, when 10 electors cast ballots for someone other than their party’s candidate. That was an unusually high number of faithless electors and could have changed the outcome in five of the 58 prior U.S. presidential elections, according to legal papers in one of the appeals filed at the Supreme Court.

LOSING THE POPULAR VOTE

Trump defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton by a margin of 304 to 227 Electoral College votes despite losing the popular vote nationally by about 3 million votes. Faithless electors could change the outcome of presidential elections with thinner Electoral College margins.

Electors pledge to vote for their party’s candidate if that person wins the state’s popular vote. At issue in the cases are laws requiring that electors follow through on those pledges.

While 32 states and the District of Columbia have such laws, a handful enforce them by removing and replacing faithless electors, or in some cases, imposing fines.

The plaintiffs challenged the sanctions, saying they were deprived of their rights under the Constitution’s Article II as well as its 12th Amendment, which spell out the Electoral College process.

In Colorado, one elector, Micheal Baca, was replaced and his vote canceled when he sought to vote for Republican John Kasich, Ohio’s former governor. A federal judge dismissed Baca’s challenge, but the Denver-based 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year revived the suit, concluding that Baca’s constitutional rights were violated.

The Washington state case arose after three faithless electors voted for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a moderate Republican, instead of Clinton. They each were fined $1,000 for their defiance, which they called the first such penalty in U.S. history. The Washington Supreme Court in 2019 upheld the fines.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Democrats ask U.S. Supreme Court to save Obamacare

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Democratic-controlled U.S. House of Representatives and 20 Democratic-led states asked the Supreme Court on Friday to declare that the landmark Obamacare healthcare law does not violate the U.S. Constitution as lower courts have found in a lawsuit brought by Republican-led states.

The House and states including New York and California want the Supreme Court to heard their appeal of a Dec. 18 ruling by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the law’s “individual mandate” that required people to obtain health insurance ran afoul of the Constitution.

The petitions asked the Supreme Court to hear the case quickly and issue a definitive ruling by the end of June.

Texas and 17 other conservative states – backed by President Donald Trump’s administration – filed a lawsuit challenging the law, which was signed by Democratic former President Barack Obama in 2010 over strenuous Republican opposition. A district court judge in Texas ruled in 2018 that the entire law was unconstitutional.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court leaves in place ruling barring prosecution of homeless

By Andrew Chung

(Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected a bid by Boise to overturn a lower court’s ruling that prohibited authorities in the Idaho city from prosecuting homeless people for staying outside if a bed at an emergency shelter is not available.

The justices left in place a ruling by the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that fining or jailing homeless people for sleeping in public or unauthorized places violates the U.S. Constitution’s bar on cruel and unusual punishment, a decision the city said threatens public health and safety.

The case centered on two Boise ordinances that prohibit camping or “disorderly conduct” by lodging or sleeping in public. The city said it needed to enforce the ordinances to prevent the formation of encampments that can lead to unsanitary conditions and crimes such as drug dealing and gang activity, and to keep public spaces accessible for residents, visitors and wildlife.

The dispute began when six people – Robert Martin, Robert Anderson, Lawrence Lee Smith, Basil Humphrey, Janet Bell and Pamela Hawkes, all current or former homeless Boise residents – sued the city in 2009, arguing that the laws violated their constitutional rights.

They had each been prosecuted under the ordinances and fined between $25 and $75. Five were sentenced to time served, while Hawkes twice served one day in jail.

The 9th Circuit last year ruled that the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibits punishing homeless individuals if there are more of them than available shelter beds. The ruling allowed the plaintiffs to seek an injunction against enforcement of the city’s ordinances.

“As long as there is no option of sleeping indoors, the government cannot criminalize indigent, homeless people for sleeping outdoors, on public property, on the false premise they had a choice in the matter,” the appeals court said.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Bronx man, battling own legal woes, brings gun rights case to U.S. Supreme Court

Bronx man, battling own legal woes, brings gun rights case to U.S. Supreme Court
By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Two weeks before Efrain Alvarez and his attorneys asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their challenge to a New York City regulation that limited where licensed handgun owners could transport their weapons, police officers showed up at his Bronx apartment and took away all his firearms.

The officers walked past the bullet-making equipment in his cluttered entranceway and past the trophy deer head hanging on his living room wall. From two imposing steel vaults in the back bedroom, they confiscated around 45 firearms, including five handguns.

“I’m still numb about it,” the 64-year-old retired city bus driver said of the August 2018 seizure. “It’s my lifelong collection.”

The officers arrested Alvarez, and he was charged with filing a false police report over a claim that one of his handguns had been stolen, a misdemeanor. As a result, Alvarez said, the very handgun license whose transport restrictions he is challenging has been suspended for the second time this decade.

The legal battle over the New York measure is the biggest gun rights case at the Supreme Court since 2010, with the justices set to hear arguments next Monday. The challenge is backed by the National Rifle Association, an influential gun rights lobby group closely aligned with Republicans including President Donald Trump, a fellow New Yorker.

The regulation restricted transport of handguns by licensed owners to shooting ranges within city limits but allowed hunting during designated seasons. The lawsuit claims the measure violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

After the regulation was amended in July to allow for transporting handguns outside New York City, city officials unsuccessfully asked the Supreme Court to drop the matter and cancel the arguments, asserting that the case was moot.

The state’s NRA affiliate, the New York State Rifle and Pistol Association, filed the lawsuit in 2013 with Alvarez and two other gun owners as plaintiffs, after authorities told the men that the regulation prevented them from participating at a shooting competition in New Jersey or bringing their guns to second homes elsewhere in the state.

Alvarez said he joined the suit because he thought it was ridiculous that he could own a handgun but not travel to compete with it.

In the lawsuit, he and the two other gun owners are described as “law-abiding residents of New York City.” Alvarez does not think his own legal troubles make it awkward or inappropriate for him to challenge the regulation.

“My suspension has nothing to do with my fight in court,” Alvarez said in an interview.

Alvarez also said he accepted a deal last week offered by the Bronx district attorney’s office to drop the charge in six months if he is not arrested again.

Asked about Alvarez’s arrest and license suspension, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Brian Stapleton, said it was the first he had heard of it.

“It has no impact on this case whatsoever,” Stapleton said.

Describing himself as a supporter of gun control measures like strong background checks, Alvarez said he hopes the ruling in his case does not undermine other firearms restrictions.

“If a bad apple grabs a gun and he does something stupid, it kind of falls on me because I’m part of what’s going on. So it would kind of hit a sore spot,” added Alvarez, who said he admires the NRA but disagrees with some of its policies.

SUPREME COURT PRECEDENT

The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court after a lower court found that the regulation did not violate the Second Amendment and advanced the city’s interest in protecting public safety.

The Supreme Court in 2008 found for the first time that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun in the home for self-defense. In 2010, the court extended that right to state and local laws as well. But the justices have avoided ruling in a major firearms case since then, leaving open questions such as whether that right extends outside the home.

“I hope that they clarify that the right to posses a firearm outside the home is as important and fundamental as the right to possess one inside the home,” Stapleton said.

Gun control advocates fear that the conservative-majority Supreme Court could use the case to expand gun rights and threaten a wide array of gun control measures nationwide such as expanded background checks and “red flag” laws targeting the firearms of people deemed dangerous by the courts.

“I don’t think there’s any question that, if given the opportunity, the NRA and its allies will try to re-challenge laws that have already been upheld and certainly challenge any new laws,” said Eric Tirschwell, managing director of litigation at Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun control lobby group that receives funding from Democratic presidential candidate and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Born and raised in New York, Alvarez is affable and blunt. He has been a gun enthusiast since serving in the U.S. National Guard decades ago. He said he became an avid hunter and started competitive shooting, winning several awards.

His hobby extends to making bullets, reloading spent casings in a mini-workshop that fills the vestibule of his Bronx apartment. He polishes the casings, melts the lead, pours the molds and sets the bullet heads with a pull of the press.

Alvarez’s August 2018 arrest came after police said he falsely reported a .38 caliber revolver had been stolen by two men he claimed had fooled him by posing as police officers. The saga led police to suspend his handgun license and confiscate his firearms, he said. The New York Police Department declined to discuss Alvarez’s case.

“Everybody who owns a firearm in New York City should have the right to take that firearm to his property, and out of the city to go shooting,” Alvarez’s said. “We’re not looking for anything else as far as I’m concerned.”

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court will not shield gun maker from Sandy Hook lawsuit

U.S. Supreme Court will not shield gun maker from Sandy Hook lawsuit
By Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday dealt a blow to the firearms industry, rejecting Remington Arms Co’s bid to escape a lawsuit by families of victims aiming to hold the gun maker liable for its marketing of the assault-style rifle used in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre that killed 20 children and six adults.

The justices turned away Remington’s appeal of a ruling by Connecticut’s top court to let the lawsuit proceed despite a federal law that broadly shields firearms manufacturers from liability when their weapons are used in crimes. The lawsuit will move forward at a time of high passions in the United States over the issue of gun control.

The family members of nine people slain and one survivor of the Sandy Hook massacre filed the lawsuit in 2014. Remington was backed in the case by a number of gun rights groups and lobbying organizations including the powerful National Rifle Association, which is closely aligned with Republicans including President Donald Trump. The NRA called the lawsuit “company-killing.”

The Dec. 14, 2012 rampage was carried out by a 20-year-old gunman named Adam Lanza, who shot his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut and fired on the first-graders and adult staff before fatally shooting himself as police closed in.

The United States has experienced a succession of mass shootings in recent decades, including several that have staggered the public such as the 2017 attack at a Las Vegas concert that killed 58 and one at a nightclub in Orlando in 2016 that killed 49. Assault-type rifles have been a recurring feature in many of the massacres.

The U.S. Congress has not enacted new gun control laws in the wake of the mass shootings largely because of Republican opposition.

The plaintiffs have argued that Remington bears some of the blame for the Sandy Hook tragedy. They said the Bushmaster AR-15 gun that Lanza used – a semi-automatic civilian version of the U.S. military’s M-16 – had been illegally marketed by the company to civilians as a combat weapon for waging war and killing human beings.

The plaintiffs said that Connecticut’s consumer protection law forbids advertising that promotes violent, criminal behavior and yet even though these rifles have become the “weapon of choice for mass shooters” Remington’s ads “continued to exploit the fantasy of an all-conquering lone gunman.” One of them, they noted, stated, “Forces of opposition, bow down.”

Remington argued that it should be insulated from the lawsuit by a 2005 federal law known as the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which was aimed at blocking a wave of lawsuits damaging to the firearms industry.

The case hinges on an exception to this shield for claims in which a gun manufacturer knowingly violates the law to sell or market guns. Remington has argued that the Connecticut Supreme Court interpreted the exception too broadly when it decided to let the case go ahead.

Though the case does not directly implicate the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, the NRA told the justices in a filing that the lawsuit could put gun manufacturers out of business, making the right meaningless.

A state trial court initially threw out the claims but the Connecticut Supreme Court revived the lawsuit in March, prompting Remington’s appeal.

The justices already have taken up one important gun rights case in their current term.

They are due to hear arguments on Dec. 2 in a lawsuit by gun owners and the state’s NRA affiliate challenging New York City restrictions on handgun owners transporting firearms outside the home. The city had asked the justices to cancel the arguments because its measure was recently amended, meaning there was no longer any reason to hear the dispute. But the court decided to go ahead with the case.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

Conservative Supreme Court justices lean toward Trump on ending immigrant program

Conservative Supreme Court justices lean toward Trump on ending immigrant program
By Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices on Tuesday appeared sympathetic to President Donald Trump’s effort to rescind a program that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants who entered the United States illegally as children – dubbed “Dreamers” – part of his tough immigration policies.

Several of the five conservative justices appeared skeptical that courts can even review the Republican president’s 2017 plan to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which had been implemented in 2012 by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama. Even if the court finds that it can be reviewed, conservative justices indicated they think Trump’s administration gave a reasonable explanation for its decision.

Liberal justices emphasized the large number of individuals, businesses and others that have relied on the program.

The court’s 5-4 conservative majority includes two justices – Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh – appointed by Trump.

The justices heard the administration’s appeals of lower court rulings in California, New York and the District of Columbia that blocked Trump’s move as unlawful and left DACA in place.

Trump’s administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he created DACA by executive action, bypassing Congress. Trump has made his hardline immigration policies – cracking down on legal and illegal immigration and pursuing construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border – a centerpiece of his presidency and 2020 re-election campaign.

Kavanaugh said there is no reason to think that the administration’s consideration of the impact its decision would have on individuals, when weighed against its contention that the DACA program was unlawful from the beginning, was anything other than a “considered decision.”

Conservative Chief Justice John Roberts – who could be the pivotal vote in deciding the case – questioned whether there was much more that needed to be added to the administration’s rationale even if the court were to rule in favor of the challengers and send the issue back for further review.

The challengers who sued to stop Trump’s action included a collection of states such as California and New York, people currently protected by the program and civil rights groups.

Were the court to rule in favor of the challengers it would merely prolong the uncertainty for “Dreamers,” Gorsuch said.

“What good would another five years of litigation … serve?” Gorsuch asked.

DACA currently shields about 660,000 immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship.

Much of the administration’s reasoning in trying to end DACA was based on then-Attorney General Jeff Session’s conclusion in 2017 that the program was unlawful.

Gorsuch pressed an attorney representing supporters of DACA about the limits on courts to second guess decisions by federal agencies that are within their discretion to make. Gorsuch also seemed skeptical that the administration had not adequately addressed its reasons for rescinding the program, as DACA advocates have argued.

Liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor demanded that U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco, who argued the case for the administration, identify whether the administration considered all the harm that ending the program would do, or if it was just a “choice to destroy lives.”

Francisco was repeatedly questioned as to why the administration has justified ending the program because of its purported unlawfulness instead of giving other reasons for why it wants to.

Toward the end of the argument Francisco pushed back, saying the administration was not trying to shirk responsibility for ending a popular program.

“We own this,” Francisco said, referring to Trump’s decision to kill DACA.

The lower courts ruled that Trump’s move to rescind DACA was likely “arbitrary and capricious” and violated a U.S. law called the Administrative Procedure Act.

The justices must determine whether administration officials failed to provide adequate reasons for the decision to end DACA. The initial memo rescinding DACA, the plaintiffs said, gave a “one-sentence explanation” and did not spell out why the administration believes the program is unlawful. The justices will also have to decide whether the administration’s action against DACA is even something courts can review.

Several hundred DACA supporters gathered outside the court on a gray and chilly Tuesday morning, chanting, banging drums and carrying signs that read “home is here” and “defend DACA.”

Anel Medina, a 28-year-old DACA enrollee and oncology nurse in Philadelphia, was among the demonstrators.

“It changed my life. I was able to get a job … finish nursing school,” said Medina, who was born in Mexico City and brought by her mother to the United States at age 5.

Medina said she was a college student and living without legal status when Obama launched DACA.

Graphic showing major cases currently before the Supreme Court: https://tmsnrt.rs/2mZn6MJ

‘A DEAL WILL BE MADE’

Trump has given mixed messages about the “Dreamers,” saying in 2017 that he has “a great love” for them even as he sought to kill a program that protected them from deportation. Ahead of the arguments on Tuesday, his tone was darker.

“Many of the people in DACA, no longer very young, are far from ‘angels.’ Some are very tough, hardened criminals,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

Immigrants who had been convicted of a felony or significant misdemeanor crimes were not eligible to apply to the DACA program and any DACA recipient can be stripped of the program’s protections and deported if they commit serious crimes.

Trump added, “If Supreme Court remedies with overturn, a deal will be made with Dems for them to stay!” Trump offered no details of any deal.

Trump previously has called on Congress to “advance responsible immigration reform” but never proposed a detailed replacement for DACA.

Obama created DACA to protect immigrants who as minors were brought into the United States illegally or overstayed a visa. Obama acted after Congress failed to pass a bipartisan immigration policy overhaul that would have provided a path to citizenship to these young immigrants.

The young people protected under DACA, Obama said, were raised and educated in the United States, grew up as Americans and often know little about their countries of origin.

The program, which allows eligible immigrants to obtain renewable two-year work permits, remains in effect for those already enrolled but the administration has refused to approve new applications.

The “Dreamers” moniker is based on the name of bipartisan legislation – never passed – called the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act that would have granted these young immigrants legal status.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley and Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Ted Hesson and Susan Heavey; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Will Dunham)

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal

U.S. Supreme Court wrestles over ‘D.C. Sniper’ life sentence appeal
By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Supreme Court justices on Wednesday questioned whether a lower court sufficiently considered that a man convicted in the deadly 2002 “D.C. Sniper” shooting spree in the Washington area was a minor at the time of the crimes when he was sentenced to life in prison.

The nine justices heard arguments in an appeal by the state of Virginia objecting to the lower court’s decision ordering that Lee Boyd Malvo’s sentence of life in prison without parole be thrown out.

Malvo, now 34, was 17 during the shootings in which 10 people were killed. He participated with an older accomplice, John Allen Muhammad, who was given the death penalty.

If Malvo prevails, he and other prison inmates in similar cases involving certain crimes committed by minors could receive new sentencing hearings to allow judges to consider whether their youth at the time of the offense merits leniency.

Malvo’s best chance of victory appears to be an alliance of the court’s four liberal justices and at least one conservative justice. The most likely contender based on questions he asked during the argument would be Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The shootings occurred over three weeks in Washington, Maryland and Virginia, causing panic in the U.S. capital region. Muhammad also was convicted and was executed in 2009 at age 48 in a Virginia state prison.

Virginia appealed after the Richmond-based 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2018 that Malvo should be resentenced. The 4th Circuit cited Supreme Court decisions issued since the shooting spree finding that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional, and that this rule applied retroactively.

Malvo received four life sentences in Virginia, where he was convicted of two murders and later entered a separate guilty plea to avoid the death penalty. He also received a sentence of life in prison without parole in Maryland.

Virginia’s appeal concerns the scope of a 2012 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that mandatory life sentences without parole in homicide cases involving juvenile killers violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In 2016, the court decided that the 2012 ruling applied retroactively, enabling people imprisoned years ago to argue for their release.

Liberal Justice Elena Kagan appeared convinced that the 2012 ruling, which she authored, dictates the outcome.

“It can be summarized in two words, which is that youth matters,” Kagan said.

Fellow liberal Justice Stephen Breyer said the “odds are greater than 50-50” that the judge did not consider Malvo’s youth during sentencing.

Kavanaugh questioned whether the Virginia sentencing process gave judges leeway not to impose sentences of life without parole, a finding that would favor Malvo. Kavanaugh described that question as the “tough part of the case.”

President Donald Trump’s administration backed Virginia in the case. Among those backing Malvo’s claim in the case are Paul LaRuffa, who was shot and injured outside the restaurant he ran in Clinton, Maryland during the 2002 spree, and two relatives of people killed in shootings.

Malvo’s Maryland sentence would not be directly affected by the outcome in the Virginia dispute.

A ruling is due by the end of June.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)

Trump says Congress would act if top court rejects ‘Dreamers’

By Susan Heavey and Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday said the U.S. Congress could step in to protect the immigrants known as “Dreamers” if the Supreme Court endorses his plan to end a program protecting hundreds of thousands of these young adults who were brought into the country illegally as children.

“Republicans and Democrats will have a deal to let them stay in our country, in very short order,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

The Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on Nov. 12 over Trump’s 2017 plan to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama in 2012. The immigrants protected under the program often are called “Dreamers.”

Trump and Congress have been unable to agree on legislation that would protect the “Dreamers,” with deep differences between the president’s fellow Republicans and Democratic lawmakers. The failure of Congress to pass a bipartisan immigration package is what prompted Obama to create DACA.

The DACA program currently shields about 700,000 immigrants, mostly Hispanic young adults, from deportation and provides them work permits, though not a path to citizenship.

Trump’s move to rescind DACA was blocked by lower courts.

A ruling by the Supreme Court is due by the end of June.

Trump said on Twitter that if the Supreme Court upholds DACA – which is not the legal question in the case before the justices – it would give the president “extraordinary powers.”

The Trump administration has argued that Obama exceeded his constitutional powers when he bypassed Congress and created DACA.

Trump himself has sought to exercise broad presidential powers over immigration, including his travel ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim-majority countries. The Supreme Court upheld that policy in 2018, recognizing wide presidential authority in this area. Trump bypassed Congress in imposing the travel ban.

The legal question before the Supreme Court is whether Trump’s administration properly followed a federal law called the Administrative Procedure Act in the president’s plan to end DACA. The Supreme Court does not have to decide whether the DACA program itself was lawful.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Alison Williams and Will Dunham)

Gay, transgender rights in spotlight as U.S. Supreme Court returns

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court kicks off its new term this week, with a major dispute on tap over whether a landmark decades-old federal anti-discrimination law that bars sex discrimination in the workplace protects gay and transgender employees.

The nine-month term opens on Monday with three cases to be argued before the nine justices. On Tuesday, the court turns to one of the term’s biggest legal battles, with two hours of arguments scheduled in three related cases on a major LGBT rights dispute.

At issue is whether gay and transgender people are covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex as well as race, color, national origin and religion.

President Donald Trump’s administration has argued that Title VII does not cover sexual orientation or gender identity.

The court, whose 5-4 conservative majority includes two Trump appointees, will hear two cases about gay people who have said they were fired due to their sexual orientation. One involves a former county child welfare services coordinator from Georgia named Gerald Bostock. The other involves a New York skydiving instructor named Donald Zarda. He died after the case began and the matter is being pursued by his estate.

“I didn’t ask for any of this. I found myself in this situation. This is a national issue of importance that needs to be confronted head on,” Bostock said.

The third case involves a Detroit funeral home’s bid to reverse a lower court ruling that it violated Title VII by firing a transgender funeral director named Aimee Stephens after Stephens revealed plans to transition from male to female. Rulings in the cases are due by the end of June.

“It would be nice if our rights were formally protected, that we have the same basic human rights as everyone else. We are not asking for anything special,” Stephens said.

Trump, a Republican with strong support among evangelical Christian voters, has taken aim at gay and transgender rights. His administration has supported the right of certain businesses to refuse to serve gay people on the basis of religious objections to gay marriage, restricted transgender service members in the military and rescinded protections on bathroom access for transgender students in public schools.

The legal fight focuses on the definition of “sex” in Title VII. The plaintiffs, along with civil rights groups and many large companies, have argued that discriminating against gay and transgender workers is inherently based on their sex and consequently is unlawful.

Trump’s Justice Department and the employers in the cases have argued that Congress did not intend for Title VII to protect gay and transgender people when it passed the law. Conservative religious groups and various Republican-led states back the administration.

Religious-based employers that expect workers to live in accordance with their religious beliefs are concerned about facing increased litigation.

“An expansion of the scope of Title VII will massively increase church-state conflict,” said Luke Goodrich, a lawyer at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious legal group.

ABORTION AND IMMIGRATION

The justices open the term on Monday with arguments in three cases on whether Kansas can abolish the insanity defense in criminal trials, whether the U.S. Constitution requires unanimous jury verdicts and on fees in patent litigation.

Abortion rights also will figure prominently for the justices. The court on Friday agreed to take up a major case that could lead to new curbs on access to abortion as it considers the legality of a Republican-backed Louisiana law that imposes restrictions on abortion doctors.

The law, which the Supreme Court in February prevented from going into effect while the litigation continues, includes a requirement that doctors who perform abortions have a difficult-to-obtain arrangement called “admitting privileges” at a hospital within 30 miles (48 km) of an abortion clinic.

The case will test the court’s willingness to uphold Republican-backed abortion restrictions being pursued in numerous states. The Supreme Court struck down a similar Texas requirement in 2016 but the court has moved to the right since then. Anti-abortion activists are hoping the justices will scale back or even overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide.

Other major cases on the horizon include Nov. 12 arguments over Trump’s move to end a program created by his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama that protects from deportation hundreds of thousands of immigrants – mostly Hispanic young adults – who were brought into the United States illegally as children.

The court is also due in December to hear its first major gun rights case in decade, although the justices potentially could dismiss it because the New York City law being challenged by gun rights advocates has been amended since the litigation began. Other gun-related cases wait in the wings for possible action by the justices.

(For a graphic on major cases before the Supreme Court, click https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-COURT/0100B2E31KB/index.html)

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

With liberal bloc aging, Trump may get more Supreme Court appointments

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With 86-year-old liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg enduring a series of health scares, the question of whether President Donald Trump will get to make yet another U.S. Supreme Court appointment before the 2020 election lingers as the nine justices prepare to begin their new term next week.

The justices, set to hold a private conference on Tuesday to discuss taking new cases after a three-month summer break, open their next nine-month term on Monday, with arguments pending in the coming weeks in major cases involving gay and transgender rights, immigration and other issues.

Trump, who took office in 2017 and is seeking re-election next year, already has appointed two justices – conservatives Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch – who have pushed the court further to the right.

The court has a 5-4 conservative majority, and two of the four liberal justices are over 80 years old, including Stephen Breyer, who turned 81 last month. Ginsburg, a justice since 1993, underwent radiation therapy in August to treat a cancerous tumor on her pancreas after having two cancerous nodules in her left lung removed last December.

The stakes could not be higher for the Supreme Court.

With Trump’s fellow Republicans in control of the Senate, which wields confirmation power over federal judicial nominations, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is well placed to push through another Trump Supreme Court appointment even if the vacancy arises close to the November 2020 election.

If Trump, running for re-election, were to win a second four-year term next year, he potentially would be able to replace both Ginsburg and Breyer, leaving the court with a rock-solid 7-2 conservative majority, possibly for decades to come. That could mean a rightward shift on numerous matters including abortion restrictions, expanding gun rights, blunting the advance of LGBT rights, maintaining the death penalty and bolstering the interests of corporations.

McConnell, who has made confirmation of Trump judicial appointees a paramount priority, made clear his intentions when asked in May at an event in his home state of Kentucky what he would do if a Supreme Court vacancy arose in 2020.

“Oh, we’d fill it,” McConnell said.

McConnell in 2016 refused to allow the Senate to act when Democratic former President Barack Obama nominated federal appellate judge Merrick Garland to fill a vacancy created by the death of conservative Justice Antonin Scalia – a move Democrats have described as the theft of a Supreme Court seat.

In justifying their inaction on Garland, McConnell and other Republicans argued that the Senate should not confirm a Supreme Court nominee during a presidential election year. Trump won the 2016 election and in 2017 named Gorsuch to replace Scalia.

‘ON MY WAY’

Ginsburg, who previously underwent treatment for colon cancer in 1999 and pancreatic cancer in 2009, is expected to be on the bench when the new term opens.

“I am on my way to being very well,” Ginsburg said on Aug. 31 during an appearance at a Washington event.

The diminutive and frail-looking justice also appeared in recent weeks alongside Justice Sonia Sotomayor at an event celebrating retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, 89, the first woman to serve on the court.

Compared to Ginsburg, who was a pioneering women’s rights lawyer before becoming a justice and has become something of an icon to American liberals, Breyer keeps a lower profile. His most recent public appearance was in London on Sept. 16. He is not known to have had any health scares since a bicycle fall in 2013 in which he fractured a shoulder.

Former senior Republican Senate aide Mike Davis, who runs a group called the Article III Project that he set up to support Trump’s judicial nominations, said he would expect Republicans to be energized by any potential election-year vacancy. But Davis said he also would expect Democrats to put up a fight.

“If people thought that Justice Kavanaugh’s confirmation fight was ugly, just wait until the next one,” Davis said, referring to contentious Senate hearings in which Kavanaugh denied allegations of decades-old sexual misconduct.

No president since Republican Ronald Reagan has appointed more than two justices to the Supreme Court. Reagan named three in his eight years as president, from 1981 to 1989. The last president to have had more than two Supreme Court appointments in his first term in office was Republican President Richard Nixon, who named four in that term running from 1969 to 1973.

Since Nixon was first elected, Republican presidents have filled 14 of the 18 Supreme Court vacancies that have arisen.

Liberal activists are resigned to the idea that Republicans would seize on any opening to expand the court’s conservative majority, even if a vacancy occurs close to the 2020 election.

“They would jump at the chance to make it (the conservative majority) 6-3. I don’t think it matters to them. It’s a raw power grab on their part,” said Christopher Kang, chief counsel at the liberal legal activist group Demand Justice.

If Senate Republicans push through a nomination – in particular in a scenario in which a Trump selection is confirmed after he loses the election but before a new president takes office – it would build momentum among Democrats for an idea promoted by some liberals for adding more seats to the court to loosen the conservative stranglehold, Kang said.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Andrew Chung and Richard Cowan; Editing by Will Dunham)