Justices grant review in 14 new cases but don’t act on hot-button issues – SCOTUSblog
Posted Fri, January 8th, 2021 9:19 pm by Amy Howe
The Supreme Court took a big step on Friday night toward filling up its merits docket for the rest of the 2020-21 term, granting review in 14 new cases for a total of 12 hours of argument. The justices will weigh in on the First Amendment rights of students and charitable organizations, as well as sentencing reductions for inmates serving time for small amounts of crack cocaine. Perhaps just as notably, the justices did not act on several high-profile petitions that they considered at Friday’s conference, involving (among other things) abortion, a dispute over the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s extension of the deadline for absentee ballots for the 2020 election, and the right to sue the president under the Constitution’s emoluments clause.
In Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Becerra and Thomas More Law Center v. Becerra, which the court consolidated for one hour of argument, the justices will hear a pair of challenges to a policy of the California attorney general’s office that requires charities to disclose the names and addresses of their major donors. A pair of conservative advocacy groups went to federal court, arguing that the policy violates the First Amendment, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled for the attorney general’s office. The groups then came to the Supreme Court, which asked the federal government for its views last year. The government urged the justices to grant review, which they did on Friday.
With their announcement that they had granted review in Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., the justices returned to the often-complicated question of student speech rights. Over 50 years ago, in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Supreme Court ruled that although students have First Amendment rights while they are at school, school officials can regulate speech that would substantially disrupt the school’s work. On Friday the justices agreed to decide whether their decision in Tinker applies to student speech that occurs off campus. The question comes to the court in the case of a Pennsylvania student who was removed from her high school’s junior varsity cheerleading team when, after failing to make the varsity team, she posted offensive Snapchat messages. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit ruled for the student, holding that Tinker does not allow schools to punish off-campus speech. The school district asked the Supreme Court to weigh in, which it agreed to do on Friday.
In Terry v. United States, the justices agreed to weigh in on a technical sentencing issue that has significant implications for thousands of inmates: whether a group of defendants who were sentenced for low-level crack-cocaine offenses before Congress enacted the Fair Sentencing Act of 2010 are eligible for resentencing under the First Step Act of 2018. The Fair Sentencing Act reduced (but did not eliminate) the disparity in sentences for convictions involving crack and powder cocaine, and the First Step Act made the Fair Sentencing Act retroactive. The specific question that the court agreed to decide is whether the changes made by the First Step Act extend to inmates convicted of the most minor crack-cocaine offenses.
In a “friend of the court” brief urging the justices to grant review in another case presenting the same question, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers explained that the lower courts are divided on this question; as a result, NACDL wrote, Supreme Court review is necessary “to prevent thousands of predominately Black defendants from being forced to spend years longer in prison than identically situated defendants” elsewhere in the country “and to ensure that Congress’s goal of alleviating the racial disparities in sentencing caused by the 1986 law’s harsh sentencing regime is realized.”
Other grants on Friday are: