Springtime for SCOTUS: Controversy blooms

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Sr. Mary Christopher of Footville and Sr. Marie Lucette of Janesville pray during a “religious freedom” gathering outside a Kastenmeier Federal Courthouse in Madison. Demonstrations were held nationwide against contraception coverage in the Affordable Care Act. –Photo: AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal, John Hart

Cherry blossoms signal springtime in D.C. So do crowds of demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court building.

The court tends to hear oral arguments in some of its most high-profile cases in March and April, and this year brings no exception.

The docket includes:

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which asks whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows a for-profit company to deny employees health coverage for contraceptives that the Affordable Care Act says they are entitled to access. The Obama administration has argued that companies don’t have such religious exemption. But Kyle Duncan of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty says the owners of the Hobby Lobby arts and crafts chain should be exempt from the birth control mandate because providing contraceptives would violate their religious beliefs. Arguments will be heard on March 25.

Wood v. Moss, which deals with whether two Secret Service agents violated protesters’ free-speech rights. At a 2004 protest in Oregon against President George W. Bush, Secret Service agents had police move the demonstrators farther away from where the president was eating dinner than where pro-Bush ralliers were allowed to stand. The protesters allege the agents violated their First Amendment rights. The Obama administration maintains that agents must make on-the-spot decisions about the president’s security and should be shielded from liability and have immunity from lawsuits. Arguments will be heard on March 26.

Susan B. Anthony List v. Driehaus, which is a free-speech case targeting an Ohio law that bars false political speech. The case involves the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion rights group that in 2010 wanted to erect billboards targeting an Ohio congressman who voted for the Affordable Care Act and had campaigned as a “pro-life Democrat.” The group wanted the ad to say, “Shame on Steve Driehaus! Driehaus voted FOR taxpayer-funded abortion.” Driehaus, who lost his re-election bid, filed a complaint saying the ad was false because the ACA doesn’t fund abortions, and thus the ad was false and prohibited under Ohio law. The Susan B. Anthony List sued, seeking to overturn the law. Arguments will be heard on April 22.

Earlier in the 2013–14 term, the Court heard arguments in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, which could lead to the most significant ruling on campaign finance since the Citizens United decision in 2010. The Citizens decision eliminated limits on corporate spending on elections. The McCutcheon case could determine whether aggregate limits on individual contributions to candidates and parties and traditional PACs in election cycles violate free speech rights.

A decision could come as early as this month, and activists concerned about weakening campaign finance regulations, which would give wealthy donors even more political clout, are planning “decision day” rallies.

“Our elections should not be for sale to the highest bidder,” said Kendra Karas, who is organizing a “decision day” rally in Grand Rapids, Mich. “I am organizing to educate the public about the ramifications of the McCutcheon case and preparing to really make some noise on the day of the ruling.”

Robert Weissman, president of the nonprofit watchdog group Public Citizen, said thousands of activists could be mobilized the day the Court hands down a ruling in McCutcheon.

“People around the country are ready to rally in response to an adverse ruling and to demand a constitutional amendment to repair the damage done by decisions such as Citizens United and, potentially, McCutcheon.”

AP contributed to this report.