Abortion, Affirmative Action and Other Supreme Court Cases to Watch This Session

Court are set to wade into contentious social matters in their new term beginning on Monday including affirmative action, union powers and voting rights, and could add major cases involving abortion and birth control. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The U.S. Supreme Court, which went back to work Monday, is slated to rule on a variety of hot-button social issues during this session. In recent years, liberals and conservatives both have accused the court of 'judicial activism'—using the court to do what lawmakers could or would not. A string of recent decision have angered conservatives, in particular. In the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, which legalized same-sex marriage, the Republican candidates for president were nearly universal in their condemnation of the court and Chief Justice John Roberts in particular. The court also riled right-wingers when it upheld Obamacare in King v. Burwell.

The court will not address same-sex marriage this session. But it will hand down rulings on other social issues, including abortion and affirmative action. It will also return to Obamacare. And the court will address cases dealing with unions and voting districts, both of which could have far-reaching consequences for average Americans.

"The left side did a lot of winning last year," Irv Gornstein, director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C, tells NBC News. "I would expect a return to the norm in which the right wins most of the big cases."

Here are the cases to watch:

  • On abortion, the court will rule on a Texas law that reduced the state's abortion clinics from more than 40 to just 10. If the law stands, the state's number of clinics will be cut in half again, advocates say. But proponents of the law, including former Texas governor Rick Perry, say it protects women's' health. The law places stricter regulations on abortion providers and requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals. If the court upholds an appeals court's ruling, the state's only clinics will be in Austin, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston. There will be no clinics west of San Antonio, advocates say. They argue that the law unduly burdens the constitutional right to abortion, which the court laid out in the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey. If the court upholds the law, we could see a slew of other laws in other states limiting the availability of abortions.
  • In another case out of Texas, the Supreme Court will review race-based standards in affirmative action admissions for universities. In 2003, the court ruled that institutions of higher education could not use a quota system to increase minority enrollment, but could treat race as one factor among others when making admission decisions. This is the second time the court will review Fisher v. University of Texas. In 2013, the court sent the case back to the appeals court for another look, which for a second time found nothing wrong with the University of Texas's admission policy. Affirmative action defenders worry that the court's decision to hear the case portends the end of affirmative action as it has existed since 2003. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who many expect to function as the swing vote between the court's liberal and conservative wings, has never voted in favor of an affirmative action program. In the court's 2013 ruling in Fisher, Kennedy wrote colleges must show "available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice" before turning to race.
  • The court is likely to take another look at Obamacare this term if it takes up Little Sisters of the Poor v. Burwell. The Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of Catholic nuns, says it should not be required to fill out a form announcing that it won't provide contraception as part of the medical insurance it provides to employees. Obamacare does not require religious groups to provide such coverage, but it does require them to announce their intentions not to do so. The nuns argue that by announcing their intention not to provide contraception coverage, and triggering third-party intervention, they are still indirectly responsible for providing contraception. If the court rules in favor of the nuns, all religious groups will receive the same treatment as churches. If it rules against them, nonreligious employees working for religious organizations may have a tougher time getting contraception.
  • In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, the court will decide if non-union employees are required to pay union dues for public-sector unions. Rebecca Friedrichs, a California teacher, argues that employees who choose not to join unions should not be required to pay union dues, even if their workplaces are unionized. Friedrichs says that forcing employees to pay union dues violates their First Amendment rights to free association and free speech, because the union negotiates on their behalf. The California Teachers association argues that allowing employees to opt out of union membership and union dues will undermine the institution of public-sector unions that's been in place since 1977. Currently, non-union members' fees go toward collective bargaining, but not toward other political lobbying unions might engage in. If the court rules in favor of Friedrichs, public sector unions are likely to take a significant hit, and some may have to reduce their lobbying efforts.
  • In two cases out of Arizona and Texas, the court is expected to address how states determine electoral districts. Texas became infamous for its bizarrely shaped districts after Republicans redrew the state's electoral map in 2012. All voting districts are required to have an equal number of people. Both cases involve the question of whether a state can use the number of voting individuals to determine a district's lines, or if it must use total population. Conservatives in both states say total population should be the measuring stick for districts. Liberals argue that in states with large numbers of undocumented immigrants, who can't vote, using total population to draw districts clumps many voters who live in those areas, which tend to be urban, together, essentially "watering down" the electoral power of cities, which tend to be more liberal than rural areas.