Campaign Finance, Executive Power, Birth Control Await 2014 Court

The Supreme Court resumes hearing oral arguments this month. NPR's Linda Wertheimer talks with Tom Goldstein, co-founder and publisher of SCOTUSblog, about the court's term so far and the cases to be decided in the New Year.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Scott Simon. Landmark decisions on gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act defined the Supreme Court's term last year. Those rulings continue to have an impact to see individual states deal with the new realities. The court has heard just a couple of cases so far in this term. But oral arguments for new cases begin later this month. Tom Goldstein joins us in the studio for a preview of those cases. He is the publisher and cofounder of SCOTUSblog, and he's also argued many cases before the Supreme Court. Tom Goldstein, thank you for coming.

TOM GOLDSTEIN: Oh, thank you so much for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So, if decisions on gay marriage and voting rights defined the court last year, what do you think is going to define the court this year?

GOLDSTEIN: I would say campaign finance, the power of the president to make appointments without a vote by the Senate, and the Affordable Care Act is back again in its contraception mandate.

WERTHEIMER: One of those has already been argued, right, the campaign finance argument?

GOLDSTEIN: They have argued the campaign finance case. That is about contribution limits across the span of all federal candidates or to party committees, like the RNC and the DNC, the Democratic National Committee. And it looks like this sixth campaign finance challenge in the Roberts court will prevail again and there will be another part of federal campaign's finance law that's struck down.

WERTHEIMER: So, liberating all kinds of money to come into the political system.

GOLDSTEIN: Yes. That's right. People remember the famous Citizens United case, which was about corporation and unions actually spending money getting their own advertisements. This is giving money to candidates. So, more money will come into the system for sure.

WERTHEIMER: What about some of the other cases the court will hear in the term in 2014? They range from presidential powers, you said, to abortion, free speech.

GOLDSTEIN: You know, we're suffering a bit of a hangover from the two previous terms, which were so exciting. And our hangover masks that this term has a bunch of very important cases, so a lot of people are paying attention to when religious organizations have to comply with the mandate to provide contraception coverage in their insurance that they now have to provide. And that's a very difficult question when you're talking about people who aren't involved in churches but say a closely held company where the owners really do operate according to their religious convictions. We also have a very important abortion-related case in how far it is that states can keep protesters away from abortion clinics. And that's an important free speech question for the protesters and also an access question for those who favor the right to choose.

WERTHEIMER: What do you think, if you were going to pick one of all of the cases that you're looking at down the road - 30-something cases that the court will hear plus ones we don't know about yet, I assume - what's going to be the most important case of the term?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, I don't know. You might think about a case that they haven't agreed to hear yet but they're about to in all likelihood. And it's about searching your cell phone. When we think about 30 years from now, 50 years from now, a lot of the times we're thinking about technologies. And that's something that the justices just don't have a lot of experience with. And they are very likely to agree to decide when it is that the police can search the contents of your phone without a warrant. And that's important on its own terms but it also raises a whole bunch of difficult questions about where computers fit in this whole miasma of what can be searched and what can't and when judges have to get involved.

WERTHEIMER: So, all of these judges who - it's not clear to me that all of them can operate a computer.

(LAUGHTER)

GOLDSTEIN: We had an argument a few years ago in which one of the justices asked what a pager was. And so they were actually very honest about the fact that they don't have a ton of experience with these technological questions. They've written opinions asking Congress to step in. But, as with so many things, that hasn't happened yet.

WERTHEIMER: Do you think this is likely to be an important term, a historic term?

GOLDSTEIN: I do, but probably for a reason that will fly below the radar for a lot of people. And that is in this term, more than in any that I can remember, the justices are being asked to overrule prior precedent. So, they're being asked to do that in the context of public employee unions, in campaign finance. Over and over and over and over again, this could be the term that most marks the court's shift to the right, where a conservative majority looks back at what the court did over the previous three decades and says that wasn't right. We're going to course-correct here. But because the cases aren't about the future of Obamacare or the Voting Rights Act or gay marriage, they just won't get the kind of public attention that sometimes a Supreme Court does.

WERTHEIMER: Tom Goldstein is a partner at the law firm Goldstein and Russell and the cofounder of SCOTUSblog. Thank you very much.

GOLDSTEIN: Thank you.

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