5 Major Cases That Highlighted Supreme Court’s 2022-2023 Term

Another year, another Supreme Court term in the books. And again, the court kept everyone waiting for many of its most consequential decisions until the last days of the 2022-2023 term.

It was worth the wait, however, since the court issued important decisions that proved to be victories for the rule of law on affirmative action, free speech, and property rights, to name a few.

So, what were the major decisions the court issued, their implications, and their potential future effects?

There’s too much to unpack in one article, but below is a breakdown of five noteworthy decisions from the Supreme Court’s most recent term. (If you want further in-depth analysis of the term, watch The Heritage Foundation’s annual “Scholars and Scribes” event.)

1) Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College; Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. University of North Carolina

Should universities be allowed to discriminate on the basis of race?  These cases presented that fundamental question and arose from a challenge to Harvard University’s and the University of North Carolina’s affirmative action admissions policies, which gave preferences to black and Hispanic students over Asian and white applicants.

Both Harvard and UNC admitted that they used race as a factor in their admissions processes, but the schools argued that their policies complied with a 2003 Supreme Court decision, Grutter v. Bollinger, where the court had previously (and controversially) held that schools could use race as a part of the admissions process for certain limited purposes. 

Here, though, the court sided with Students for Fair Admissions, which had challenged those admissions policies, and held that both schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.  The court ruled that both schools’ race-based admissions policies where race played a determinative factor in the admissions process violated the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment.

It was a 6-2 decision against Harvard (Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson recused herself from this case since she had served on Harvard’s Board of Overseers) and a 6-3 decision against UNC with Chief Justice John Roberts authoring the majority opinion for the cases.

2) Department of Education v. Brown; Biden v. Nebraska

These were the last cases decided by the justices this term, and both asked the court to answer the question of whether the Biden administration’s attempt to forgive certain student loans violated the law.

By way of background, the Biden administration implemented a student loan forgiveness program intended to forgive $10,000 in student loans for borrowers with an annual income of less than $150,000. To justify such an audacious action, Biden attempted to justify the program as being authorized under the HEROES Act, which gives the secretary of education the ability to cancel certain federal student loans in times of a national emergency.

In Department of Education v. Brown, two individuals who did not qualify for the maximum relief available under Biden’s student loan relief program filed suit and argued they had standing (that is, the legal ability) to challenge the program. The court, in a unanimous opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, disagreed and found that they could not challenge the program.

In Biden v. Nebraska, Nebraska and five other states also challenged Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, arguing they had been harmed and have standing to challenge the program and that the HEROES Act does not grant the secretary of education the broad power to cancel student debt and enact the Biden administration’s program.

The court agreed with the states. In the 6-3 decision authored by Roberts, the court held that at least one of the states, Missouri, does have standing to challenge the debt relief program because it operates a state agency for servicing federal student loans and that the program will cause Missouri’s state agency to lose revenue.

The court also held the HEROES Act did not authorize the administration to implement its audacious program.

3) 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis

Can a state compel someone to speak in favor of something that violates his or her core beliefs?  This case presented that fundamental question.

Lorie Smith, the founder and owner of 303 Creative LLC, wanted to expand her graphic design business into creating wedding websites. Smith’s religious beliefs, however, don’t allow her to support same-sex marriages and, thus, she could not design wedding websites for same-sex weddings.

But Smith lives in Colorado, which has the Colorado Anti-Discrimination Act on its books. The state has interpreted this act broadly and has, in the past, claimed that refusing to provide goods or services for same-sex weddings violates it. 

Worrying that she would be a target for enforcement, Smith challenged the Colorado law in federal court, alleging that it violated the First Amendment because the government would be compelling her to speak in favor of something that violated her beliefs.

Thankfully, in a 6-3 opinion written by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court held that the First Amendment’s free speech guarantee prohibits Colorado from compelling Smith to design a website — and thus essentially to speak — in favor of something with which she disagrees.

4) National Pork Producers Council v. Ross

In 2018, California voters passed Proposition 12, which made it illegal to sell pork in California that was not raised according to the state’s ethical standards for animals. Those standards included proscriptions that are not currently the industry standard. Notably, most pork Californians consume is not raised in California.

The National Pork Producers Council brought a lawsuit alleging that the California law violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, since California essentially would be applying its standards extraterritorially to control businesses occurring in other states.

In a split and splintered 5-4 decision authored by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the court held that California’s Proposition 12 does not violate the Dormant Commerce Clause.5) Moore v. Harper

This election law-related case started when North Carolina gained a seat in the House of Representatives based on the 2020 census. The North Carolina General Assembly drew a new congressional map for the state to account for the new congressional seat. But the new map was challenged, and the North Carolina Supreme Court said it violated the state’s constitution.

Members of the North Carolina House of Representatives challenged the state Supreme Court’s ability to enter this ruling since the U.S. Constitution gives primary authority to state legislatures for setting the rules and procedures regarding federal elections.  Many dubbed this (somewhat disingenuously) the “Independent Legislature” theory.

In a 6-3 decision authored by Roberts, the court rejected the arguments of the legislators and affirmed that state courts can review the election rules created by state legislatures for compliance with state law. 

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