SCOTUS: What Else Happened This Term?

The Supreme Court handed down major decisions on voting rights, affirmative action, and gay marriage. But what about some of the lower-profile rulings this term? Host Michel Martin runs through those cases with Robert Barnes of the Washington Post.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, it turns out that all that time on Facebook might not be the big waste of time parents think it is. There's a provocative new study that looks at the connection between school success and how students use Facebook.

We'll tell you about that in just a few minutes. But first, we go back to the place we've been covering all week: the Supreme Court. This year's session is now over. There were big decisions on the Voting Rights Act, affirmative action, and gay marriage.

But there were also important rulings concerning workplace harassment and the rights of adoptive parents that could affect people across the country. These decisions might not have gotten the attention that they deserve, so we've called, once again, Washington Post reporter Robert Barnes, who covers the Supreme Court to tell us more about those. Thank you so much for joining us once again, Bob Barnes.

ROBERT BARNES: Hello, Michel, how are you?

MARTIN: Great. Now I want to start with a case that you talked about on the program last week. It's been called the Baby Veronica case. Could you just remind us what it's all about?

BARNES: This is a case where a girl was born. The dad, who is a registered member of the Cherokee Nation and the birth mother of the child - they broke up before the child was born. He - she asked him in a text message whether he wanted to give up his rights to the child or pay child support. He said he would give up his rights, and then she decided to put the child up for adoption. A couple from South Carolina adopted - or went and got the child, they were with her when the child was born.

But then months later, when they tried to make the adoption permanent and final, he objected, and because of something called the Indian Child Welfare Act, he had more rights than a typical unwed father would have in that kind of thing. Eventually, the South Carolina Supreme Court said that the Indian Child Welfare Act meant that the child had to be returned to the father - or given to the father, she'd never lived with him before. And after 27 months with her first family, she was returned to the father.

MARTIN: And now she's been with him for about 18 months now, if I have that right. What did the court decide?

BARNES: That's right. Well, what the court decided was that the Indian Child Welfare Act, although it makes it very hard for people to adopt from outside the tribe, that it didn't apply in this case, where the father had abandoned the child - was the words that five members of the court used. And he had never had custody of the child. The law talks about continued custody, and the court reasoned that since he never had custody, the Indian Child Welfare Act didn't apply in this case.

MARTIN: And this was another 5-4 ruling, something that we've come to expect from this court. And what did the minority say in this?

BARNES: Well, they said that the act did apply, that Congress's specific intent in 1978 when it passed this was that because children from tribes had been adopted and put in foster care, in what Congress said at the time was, a shameful manner, that it did erect these barriers and that it did make it very hard to take a child from an Indian parent, no matter what the circumstances were. And that the majority was simply thinking that this was a bad idea and finding a way around it.

MARTIN: What's going to happen now to this child? Do we know?

BARNES: We don't know. And as the Justice Sotomayor, who wrote the dissent said - the only thing that we know is that there's more anguish ahead for these parents. It will be returned back to the South Carolina Supreme Court, and it would seem likely that they would then be able to terminate the father's parental rights. And it may be that the child goes back to the adoptive family, the family that wanted to adopt her.

On the other hand, there also could be more petitions for - to adopt this child, perhaps from the grandparents. And that could be that the court decides at this point they have to look at what's in the child's best interest.

MARTIN: Is there any broader applicability to other children who are not in these, kind of, unique circumstances?

BARNES: Well, you know, it is a very unique circumstance, but on the other hand, I'm told by those in the - who spend a lot of time on adoption that the Indian Child Welfare Act is something that almost all adoption groups, and agencies and lawyers treat very seriously.

And it is the first thing that is often asked when a child is put up for adoption, which is, is there any way that this child is going to be covered by the Indian Child Welfare Act? And so this does narrow that act a little bit, although it didn't - the court did not get to the heart of whether it was a good idea or not.

MARTIN: There was another case about workplace harassment that I wanted to ask you about. This was - got a lot of attention because Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made an interesting statement, actually called upon Congress to reverse the decision in this case and also another case that pertained to the workplace. Can you just tell us briefly about those?

BARNES: Yeah, the main one, the one that probably will have the most applicability outside of the specific cases - what, who is a supervisor? Under the law, if someone is a supervisor, that means that the employer is automatically liable for whatever laws or harassment that this supervisor might be guilty of. If the person is just a coworker, however, who may have a lot to say about what the person's day-to-day job is, then it's a different definition. And so what the courts said was, a supervisor can only be someone who has the ability to fire, or hire or demote someone.

And Justice Ginsburg said that that ignored the realities of the workplace. You know, as she has, in the past, she has called on Congress to act when she thinks that her colleagues have not recognized these kind of things. She did it a few years ago in the Lilly Ledbetter case, about a woman who was not paid as much as her male colleagues, but she waited too long to file her suit. Justice Ginsburg, in that case, also read from the bench her dissent, and called on Congress to act. And it turned out that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was one of the first pieces of legislation that President Obama signed.

MARTIN: So they listened in that case?

BARNES: They listened in that case...

MARTIN: In that case.

BARNES: ...It was a different Congress then too, I guess I should point out.

MARTIN: Well, did you see any broader trends from this year's court rulings? I mean, you know, often - obviously, each case is terribly important to the people who brought it, to the people who defended it, or argued against it, and it obviously has broader applicability. But there - did you see sort of any broader trend that you wanted to point to?

BARNES: Well, you know what I think was interesting? This year, especially at the end, was the roles that Justice Scalia played and Justice Ginsburg played. He, as the most senior justice on the right, she as the most senior justice on the left. When the court struck down the Voting Rights Act, she issued a very tough dissent and really emphasized it by reading from the bench. Justice Scalia did the exact same thing yesterday when the court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act.

A very, very stinging dissent he wrote, and a very - somewhat sarcastic dissent that he read from the bench. And I think it showed the leadership that those two play on their respective blocks on the court. It also pointed out their age a little bit. Justice Ginsburg turned 80 this year. Justice Scalia's now 77. It sort of raises the question of how much longer they will be around to play those roles.

MARTIN: Well, why does it? Why does it? Why does it raise those questions? Just by bringing them sort of more into prominence as individual players on the court in a way that most people don't always think of?

BARNES: Yeah, you know, the court is often thought of as the chief justice and everybody else. And I thought that those decisions, this year, they both - they both showed something different. Justice Scalia was also interesting in that, in some criminal cases, he aligned himself with the liberal justices and made a five-member majority that way.

And it's one of the things about the court that I think can be somewhat surprising.

You know, Washington institutions now are seen to be quite predictable in the way they react to things. I think that the Supreme Court, although their actions seem logical to those of us who pay attention to them all the time, I think it can strike the public as being a somewhat unpredictable and somewhat hard-to-pitch-in-the-hole institution.

MARTIN: We only have about two minutes left. So I did want to ask before we let you go is there, in your opinion - I'm asking your opinion - is there a decision that you think didn't get a lot of press or didn't get as much attention because there were so many, you know, blockbuster issues before us, but that really will deserve attention because the consequences will be, you know, far-reaching, or just something you think is important to take note of?

BARNES: Well, you know, it's interesting. There were two, I guess I would put in that way. The affirmative action case that everyone thought was going to be a big deal turned out not to do very much in that field, but I think the court is far from over with that issue. It was sort of a punt, sending the case back to lower courts, but it didn't seem to change things very much.

And the conservatives on the court - and this is one where the chief justice is very interested - they're very suspicious of racial categorizations, and I think that that is something that we'll see returned to the court, absolutely. The other case was a voting case from Arizona in which the majority found that there was still a large role for the federal government to play in the way elections are conducted. That could have something to - important to say later on.

MARTIN: Robert Barnes covers the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. We caught up with him at The Post's offices in Washington, D.C. Bob Barnes, thanks so much for joining us.

BARNES: It's good to be with you.

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