Supreme Court To Take Up Campaign Finance, Abortion Protests In 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to resume work in a couple of weeks. Among other cases, the justices will be deciding the rules that govern campaign finance and they will hear arguments in cases regarding the so-called buffer zones around abortion clinics and the Affordable Care Act's requirement that for-profit companies cover contraception in their health plans.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Audie Cornish.

As we pause here in Washington to look at the new year, there is a great deal of talk about the president and Congress, but what about the Supreme Court? Joining us for a preview of what's coming up is NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. So, Nina, when the court comes back to work in a couple of weeks, what should we expect?

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Well, first of all, Audie, we're waiting for decisions in a couple of important cases that were argued early in the term but haven't been decided yet. One tests whether voters by ballot initiative can ban affirmative action in higher education. The other is a big campaign finance case. It tests the constitutionality of a federal law barring individuals from giving more than a total of $48,000 to all congressional campaigns in a two-year cycle and a similar limit of about 75,000 for political parties.

CORNISH: So this is the latest big campaign finance shoe that could drop?

TOTENBERG: Yep. In 2010, the justices, by a 5-4 vote, knocked down one pillar of the campaign finance system, which had limited what corporations and unions could spend on their own in campaigns. Now comes the other pillar, limits on the aggregate amount given in contributions directly to the candidates.

CORNISH: So what is coming up new?

TOTENBERG: Well, in January, there are some very interesting cases that are going to be argued. On the political side is a test of whether and under what circumstances the president can make recess appointments and what actually constitutes a recess. Republicans now, and Democrats in the past, have sought to block recess appointments by holding pro forma 30-second Senate sessions every three days. President Obama claims these sessions are essentially fake, to mask what's really a congressional recess except for those 30 seconds. And we should note that but for a couple of senators, the chambers are totally deserted. Also being argued in January is a case testing buffer zones at abortion clinics.

CORNISH: Now, Nina, don't I remember the Supreme Court a decade ago upholding buffer zones to protect the health and safety of patients and staff entering and existing these clinics?

TOTENBERG: Yes, you do, but that was 2000 and a different court. Listen to what Justice Antonin Scalia said in dissent at the time when the decision was announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED SPEECH)

JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: Does the deck seem stacked? You bet. As a result, our longstanding commitment to uninhibited, robust and wide-open debate is miraculously replaced by the power of the state to protect an unheard of right to be let alone on the public streets.

TOTENBERG: Now, as I said, Scalia was dissenting. But today, the court's composition is very different than it was in 2000, with four of the justices who were in the majority back then gone now. In particular, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, whose record is unsympathetic to abortion rights.

CORNISH: And you went to Boston, the site of this year's test case?

TOTENBERG: I did. And there, I talked to lots of the key players, including Eleanor McCullen, who's the lead Operation Rescue plaintiff, challenging the Massachusetts statue. The law limits protesters to 35 feet around the entrance to the clinic. Mrs. McCullen, I got to tell you, looks like everyone's idea of a grandmother. And here's what she had to say about the buffer zone.

ELEANOR MCCULLEN: It goes against my First Amendment rights. It's America and I should be able to walk and talk gently, lovingly anywhere with anybody. I should be able to do that.

TOTENBERG: I also talked to the director of Massachusetts' Planned Parenthood, Marty Walz, who compared the Massachusetts' buffer zone to laws creating buffer zones around political conventions, funerals and polling places.

MARTHA WALZ: In Massachusetts, there's a 150-foot buffer zone around every polling place in the state. If you want to hand out literature or talk to voters, you have to stand 150 feet away from the door. This is just 35 feet.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, the court is also going to hear a challenge to the contraceptive coverage mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

TOTENBERG: Yes. The ACA requires all for-profit companies to include contraception coverage in their health plans. Some non-profits are exempt for religious reasons, but that's not the issue here. This case is about for-profit companies. One of them is the Hobby Lobby, a chain of 500 crafts stores employing 13,000 employees. The owners are religious anti-abortion conservatives who object to some forms of birth control and contend that the mandate abridges their religious rights in violation of both the Constitution and a federal law on religious rights. The federal government defends the requirement, arguing that corporations are legal entities but not people who worship, and that the employees of these corporations have rights, too.

CORNISH: Nina, I assume there are lots of other important cases.

TOTENBERG: Yep. There's a major case that could undermine union organizing in the public sector. There are environmental questions testing the EPA's authority to regulate coal-fired plants to prevent global warming. There's a case testing whether the federal government can regulate straw purchases of guns. And there's a case testing under what circumstances children whose nude photos are circulated around the Internet can recover monetary damages. And as they say on those TV ads, but wait, there's more. More, Audie, that we really don't have time to talk about here but this gives you sort of a flavor of what's coming up.

CORNISH: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you.

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