For liberals, the Supreme Court term ended its 2020-21 term on a sour note. In two July 1 decisions, each with the same 6-3 division of Justices, the Court demonstrated that it is, indeed, a very conservative court.
In Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, the Court overturned a California law requiring that nonprofits, including political action groups, provide donors’ names to the state’s Attorney General, though not to the public at large. The ruling was based on the First Amendment right of free association. The law’s laudable purpose was to prevent fraud, but according to Chief Justice Roberts it failed to give enough weight to “the gravity of privacy concerns.” It is a remarkable decision, especially if you go back to Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the Citizens United case, where allowing unlimited corporate and union political donations was based on the premise that “prompt disclosure” of donors’ identities provided ample public accountability.
The other case, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, further undercut what is left of the Voting Rights Act, which was diluted in Shelby County v. Holder (2013), where the Court invalidated Section 5 of the law, which required federal preclearance before certain states could change their voting laws.
Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act prohibits election laws that discriminate on the basis of race or color. Justice Alito’s opinion upholds Arizona laws that invalidate ballots cast in the wrong precinct and that, with some exceptions, make it a crime to deliver another person’s ballot (“ballot-harvesting”). According to him, these are no different than the “usual burdens of voting.” (If it were up to the New Hampshire Supreme Court, the result might well have been different. On July 2, as reported in the July 3-4 Sentinel, the Court held that the New Hampshire law imposing strict proof-of-identity requirements on voters imposes undue burdens on the right to vote and therefore violates the state constitution.)
Looking at the world through conservative eyes, the donor identity and election law rulings uphold basic values of privacy and federalism. According to Washington Post columnist Hugh Hewitt, the six-Justice majority is “heading back to Philadelphia, the birthplace of the Constitution.” I am reminded of something W.C. Fields once said. “First prize was a week in Philadelphia. Second price was two weeks.”
These decisions are likely the harbinger of more to come next term, when the Court will take up cases dealing with abortion, gun ownership, state aid to religious schools, and possibly affirmative action in college admissions. And yet, until the Court’s end-of-term one-two punch, conservative and liberal justices were often able to find common ground. Two notable cases make the point.
In Fulton v City of Philadelphia, the Court unanimously ruled that Philadelphia’s Catholic Social Services could not be required to accept same-sex couples as foster parents. But the scope of Chief Justice Roberts’s opinion for himself, the three Court liberals, and conservatives Kavanaugh and Barrett, is so limited that Justices Alito, Thomas, and Gorsuch concurred while gritting their teeth. The Court’s narrowly written opinion holds that the City’s non-discrimination requirement, which contains numerous exceptions, “imposes a burden on CSS’s religious exercise and does not qualify as generally applicable.” The decision shows, once again, that the free exercise of religion clause now occupies a sacred place in the hierarchy of constitutional values.
The second case, almost unanimous, may not have the impact of the election and political donor cases, but it is important. Brandi Levy, age 14, did not make it from the junior varsity
2 cheerleading team to the varsity. She could have cursed privately, as I probably did when I didn’t make varsity basketball, but instead she went public on Snapchat, a social media platform where you can swear as much as you like and in no time it disappears, like invisible ink.
Brandi ’s profanity-laden meltdown took place outside of school hours and not on school property. No doubt she thought the steam she was letting off would evaporate, but no such luck. Another cheerleader took a picture of the Snapchat posting, shared it with others, and then showed the cheerleading coaches who showed it to the school principal.
Brandi apologized, but too late. As punishment for her “vulgar language and gestures,” Mahanoy Area High School imposed a one-year suspension from junior varsity cheerleading.
The 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School case set the stage for Brandi’s case, Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L. The Tinker case dealt with student armband-wearing as a protest to the Vietnam War. The Court ruled, 7 to 2, that unless the school could show that the armbands disrupted school operations, such student expression was protected by the First Amendment.
So, too, with Brandi Levy’s somewhat different means of expression. The Court, once again, says that student speech, even if off-campus, remains subject to regulation in certain circumstances, but this is not one of them. First, dealing with Brandi’s tirade was her parents’ responsibility. Second, courts should be especially skeptical of attempts to regulate outside-ofschool speech. And third, schools should protect a student’s freedom of expression.
Brandi is now 18 and of voting age. Perhaps she will use her cheerleading skills to promote participating in the electoral process.