This session of the Supreme Court will produce five decisions that could have far reaching impact going forward. One involves a novel twist on straw buyers for guns, another examines police access to an arrestee’s cell phone, another addresses the president’s power to make recess appointments, a fourth addresses public service unions, and the fifth involves contraceptive mandates in the Affordable Care Act.
In Abramski v US 12-1493, the Court was asked to decide if one person legally able to purchase a firearm can purchase a firearm for another person legally able to purchase a firearm. In other words, does such a construct fall under the “straw buyer” prohibition in 18 US 922(a)6? The 5-4 majority opinion, delivered by Justice Kagan, argues that an individual cannot walk into a gun dealer’s shop and buy a gun for someone else by claiming to be the actual buyer. A form demanding to know who the actual purchaser is, the majority ruled, has to be answered truthfully, or else the entire transaction is illegal.
At issue is a situation where Angel Alverez, a Pennsylvania resident legally able to purchase a handgun, asked his nephew, a former Rocky Mount [VA] police officer, to buy a Glock 19 for him, taking advantage of the peace officer’s discount many gun shops offer. Bruce James Abramski Jr, of Rocky Mount [VA] was convicted of claiming falsely that he was the buyer of the Glock 19. This ruling upheld that conviction.
The Supreme Court found that federal background checks of the actual buyer are an important tool for investigating gun crimes: “We hold that such a misrepresentation is punishable under the statute, whether or not the true buyer could have purchased the gun without the straw,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the majority. I concur. I harbor no desire to limit the ability of lawful persons to purchase and possess firearms, but by the same token, recognize the significant damage done in our society by armed unlawful persons. I don’t feel it too confining to ask the lawful buyer to conduct the transaction him or herself.
Justice Antonin Scalia wrote for the dissenters arguing that the federal background-checking scheme simply does not apply to a gun purchase when both the person at the counter paying for the weapon and the person for whom the gun is being bought are legally eligible to have it. I find this argument weak and fraught with abuse opportunities.
Riley v California 13-132 and US v Wurie 13-212 resulted in the twelfth unanimous finding against the Obama administration’s stand before the Supreme Court. At issue are two similar cases where police searched an arrestee’s cellphone which led to further charges against the arrestees. Both cases were appealed on Fourth Amendment grounds. Both arrestees were convicted on the original charges, but wanted the additional charges overturned. The US Supreme Court agreed that a warrant is needed before searching a cellphone – even after the owner is arrested – except in cases where the safety of the officers or others is at immediate risk.
“Cellphones are powerful devices unlike anything else police may find on someone they arrest,” Chief Justice John Roberts said for the court. “Modern cellphones are not just another technological convenience. With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans the privacies of life,” Roberts said. I agree. A conversation we’ve had here at the house about this decision concerned Berghuis v Thompkins 08-1470, the case which stated that as long as an arrestee claimed his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, the State could not force him/her to reveal passwords to encrypted files. This would seem to apply to warranted searches of cellphones as well as computers legally seized by police.
National Labor Relations Board v Noel Canning et al 12-1281 essentially asked the Court to remind the president that the legislative body decides when it is on recess, not the executive. It’s in the Constitution. For the thirteenth time, the Supreme Court found unanimously against the administration, with liberal Justice Stephen Breyer writing for the Court.
President Obama opened 2012 by naming three members to the quorum-starved NLRB and the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau while the Senate was gaveling in and out every 72 hours, usually without conducting any business. These pro forma sessions were announced in advance, and it was announced that these sessions were conducted with the express intent of keeping the Senate in session.
Obama said the Senate, for all intents and purposes, was in recess. Under the Constitution, presidents can fill vacancies during recesses without Senate confirmation.
Enter Pepsi bottler Noel Canning of Yakima [WA], which contested a 2012 decision of the labor board dominated by Obama’s recess appointees. It won more than it bargained for at the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, which ruled that such appointments are constitutional only when vacancies occur and are filled during the annual break between congressional sessions.
This ruling means that ~1,800 decisions made by the labor board while dominated by Obama’s recess appointees in 2012 and half of 2013 will be called into question. The new five-member board, including four members since approved by the Senate, will have to revisit those cases. Consumer protection chief Richard Cordray has since been confirmed by the Senate, so he can reaffirm his prior actions.
In this case, I think Canning will lose on the merits when re-litigated before a legitimate NLRB, but the important impact here is that the Court reminded the executive that it must act within the Constitution.
In Harris v Quinn 11-681, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 along ideological lines that in untraditional workplaces – petitioner was engaged in homecare – persons not a member of the usual union for such activities is not compelled to pay union dues (even though they are covered by industry-wide conditions negotiated by those unions). This is a narrow ruling in that it doesn’t address (one way or the other) persons in traditional workplaces who do not belong to the relevant union, but are required to pay dues.
This could serve as a wedge on either of two fronts – unions, in general, requiring non-members in a workplace to pay dues; and public service unions in general.
Sebelius v Hobby Lobby Stores Inc 13-354 and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp v Sebelius 13-356 both have to do with the Affordable Care Act mandating that abortifacients be included in a list of covered birth control therapies. The argument was joined by two privately owned businesses that claim to run their companies according to religious beliefs, and that mandating that they provide “morning after” birth control methods constitutes abortion, and that runs against their fervently held religious beliefs. Again 5-4 along ideological lines, the Court ruled that closely-held (i.e., not publicly traded) firms can opt out of providing these four (three pills and one IUD) methods from the list of twenty covered birth control techniques.
As in Harris, the Court decided narrowly, in that this ruling applies only to closely-held companies, and applies only to the abortifacients on the list. This may also provide a wedge with which others attempt to chip away at the Affordable Care Act and/or mandated birth control, but for now, the issue is specifically defined.
 Kagan, Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor and Kennedy.
 See Supreme Court rules against third-party gun purchases, RIA Novosti, June 17 2014, 0405EDT; Sam Hananel, Supreme Court rules on “straw purchaser” law, AP, June 16 2014, 1543EDT.
 Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas.
 The President shall have power to fill up all vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate, by granting commissions which shall expire at the end of their next session. Constitution of the United States of America, Article II, Section 2, Clause 2.