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Travel ban, gerrymander tops Supreme Court’s closing

Greg Stohr
Bloomberg News

Get ready for some blockbuster rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The court is racing toward the end of its nine-month term with some of its biggest cases still to be decided, led by the fight over President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The justices also will rule on partisan gerrymandering, union fees, internet sales taxes, credit-card fees and cellphone privacy.

And the term could end with even bigger news if a justice announces retirement plans.

The justices began this month with a narrow ruling favoring a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. With 25 cases awaiting decisions, the court is on pace to issue 48 percent of its opinions during June, the highest percentage in history, according to Adam Feldman, a scholar who runs the empiricalscotus.com website.

The court will issue its next opinions on Monday. Here’s a look at what it has scheduled to decide by the end of the month:

Trump travel ban

The last argument of the term will produce the most anticipated ruling. Hawaii is leading an effort to overturn Trump’s travel ban, which indefinitely bars more than 150 million people from entering the country. The latest version affects seven countries, five of them predominantly Muslim.

Opponents say the president overstepped his authority and was unconstitutionally motivated by anti-Muslim bias. He argues that the policy is needed to prevent terrorists from entering the country.

Arguments in April suggested the court was poised to uphold the policy. Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy indicated he was reluctant for the court to second-guess the president on a national security question.

That would be a major victory for Trump, upholding a policy that set an assertive tone for his presidency when he announced the first version of the ban a week after taking office.

Partisan gerrymandering

The Supreme Court has never struck down a voting map as being so partisan it violates the Constitution. Critics of gerrymandering hope the court is ready to take that step in a fight over a Republican-drawn state legislative map in Wisconsin.

But the Oct. 2 argument, the first of the term, suggested swing vote Kennedy and his colleagues hadn’t yet found a manageable standard to separate unconstitutional gerrymanders from legitimate political considerations.

The court then complicated matters by accepting a second case, a challenge to a single, Democratic-drawn congressional district in Maryland. That case opened the possibility of a limited decision that would allow challenges only on a district-by-district basis. Both cases also could get sidetracked by procedural issues.

A broad ruling against gerrymandering could bolster Democrats, letting them attack Republican-drawn maps around the country, though it almost certainly won’t come soon enough to affect the November midterm elections.

Internet sales taxes

Traditional retailers and cash-strapped states are eager to overturn a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that lets many internet retailers avoid collecting sales taxes from their customers. That ruling, Quill v. North Dakota, says merchants don’t have to collect taxes unless they have a physical presence in the state.

The court accepted a South Dakota appeal that takes direct aim at Quill. But arguments in April were inconclusive, with some justices indicating they would prefer to leave the issue for Congress.

Such a ruling would be a victory for internet retailers that don’t always collect tax. Those include the three companies fighting South Dakota: Wayfair Inc., Overstock.com Inc. and Newegg Inc. Amazon.com Inc., the biggest online retailer, isn’t directly involved.

Union fees

The court’s conservative majority appears poised to allow public-sector workers to refuse to pay their share of the cost of union representation. Opponents of those so-called agency fees say workers have a free speech right not to contribute to a union that doesn’t represent their views on important public policy issues.

A 1977 Supreme Court ruling says workers can be required to pay for the cost of collective bargaining as long as they don’t have to fund ideological or political activities. Right-to-work advocates are seeking to overturn that ruling.

The issue divided a shorthanded court 4-4 two years ago. The newest justice, Trump appointee Neil Gorsuch, is positioned to break the tie.

The case could affect 5 million workers in about two dozen states.

Mobile phone privacy

The justices are considering requiring prosecutors to get a warrant before obtaining mobile phone records that show a person’s location over the course of weeks or months.

The case involves a man convicted of taking part in a string of armed robberies near Detroit. At trial, prosecutors used months of data acquired from the man’s wireless carriers to show he was near the locations of four of the robberies when they occurred.

Prosecutors seek location information from telephone companies in tens of thousands of cases a year. The case also has implications for the growing number of personal and household devices that connect to the cloud, including virtual assistants, smart thermostats and fitness trackers.

Credit card fees

The court is considering reviving government allegations that American Express Co. thwarts competition by prohibiting merchants from steering customers to cards with lower fees.

At issue is whether the U.S. government and 11 states must show that the American Express rules harmed cardholders, and not just merchants.

Retailers are looking to reduce the $50 billion in fees they pay to credit-card companies each year. The case is also being closely watched in Silicon Valley because of the prospect that the court’s reasoning could insulate tech giants like Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com from some antitrust suits.

Voter purges

The court is using an Ohio case to decide how far states can go in purging their election databases of people who might have moved away. Critics say Ohio is violating a federal law that bars people from being removed from the rolls because they didn’t vote.

Ohio mails notices to people who haven’t voted in two years, asking them to confirm that they still live at that address. If someone doesn’t respond and then doesn’t vote during the next four years, the state removes the person.

The case has become a proxy for the highly partisan fight over election rules. Republicans are calling for stepped-up efforts to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats say those moves are a thinly veiled campaign to stop liberals and minorities from casting ballots.

Nineteen states use voter inactivity in the process of purging their databases, though only a handful make non-voting as central as Ohio does.

Other cases

A handful of lower-profile cases could produce important rulings as well. The court is weighing the fate of a California law that requires pregnancy-counseling clinics that oppose abortion to tell patients they might be eligible to get the procedure free or at a discount.

The justices are also set to decide whether people have a constitutional right to wear political apparel – including "Make America Great Again" hats and #metoo buttons – to the polls when they vote.

And the court is considering whether the judges who handle cases at the Securities and Exchange Commission were appointed in accordance with the Constitution. That case could upend administrative hearing systems across the federal government.

Retirement watch

Three of the last seven justices to retire have done so shortly after the court issued its final opinions of a term. Departure speculation this year is focused on Kennedy, 81, and Justice Clarence Thomas, 69.

Neither man has given any public indication of plans to step down. But either could be eyeing 2018 as the last clear chance to have Trump nominate a successor while Republicans control the Senate.

A Kennedy retirement could herald a seismic shift given his pivotal role. A Trump-appointed successor could create a far more conservative court, one that might even overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion-rights ruling.