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The Upcoming Supreme Court Cases That Matter Most for States and Localities

The justices will hear cases this month on collective bargaining, juvenile justice, water rights and more.

The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)
The city of Memphis, Tenn., has been drawing water from the sandy Sparta-Memphis aquifer straddling the Mississippi-Tennessee border since 1886. But now, the U.S. Supreme Court might put a stop to Memphis’ water-pumping activities in the area. This would be the first time the court explicitly adjudicated an interstate dispute over groundwater usage. 

With the Supreme Court back in session as of Oct. 5, here are several cases important to matters of state and municipal government.

Montgomery v. Louisiana

In 2012, Miller v. Alabama established that a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violates the 8th Amendment. Montgomery v. Louisiana will determine if Miller is retroactive and applicable to cases decided before Miller. If the Supreme Court holds that Miller is retroactive, thousands of prisoners would be entitled to court hearings to review their sentencing.

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

In this case, the legality of the university’s admission policy is called into question for its use of racial factors in reviewing college applications.

The University of Texas automatically admits the top 10 percent of the state's public high school graduates every year. This makes up the majority of its incoming freshman class. Other applicants make up around 20 percent of the incoming class, and the school considers them separately on a case-by-case review.

An applicant challenged the admission policy in court, arguing that because the top 10 percent automatically admitted represent a diverse background, there was no need for racial factors to play a role in the review of other applications.

The Supreme Court heard the first version of this case in 2013 and sent the case back down to the 5th District Court with the requirement that the university prove its consideration of race was necessary to further its interest in the educational benefits of diversity. The lower court upheld that the university’s use of race in a case-by-case basis did indeed further its interest in diversity.

The case has returned for round two, and at question now is how a court can determine if a university’s race-neutral alternatives to affirmative-action admissions policy causes a sufficient level of diversity in the student body.

Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association

This lawsuit challenges a decades-old law supporting “fair share” payment of charges related to collective bargaining from public-sector workers who opt out of union membership. “Fair share” is a source of huge anxiety to unions across the country.

In 1976, Abood v. Detroit Bd. of Ed held that states’ laws requiring the payment of charges related to collective bargaining did not breach the First Amendment.  

At issue in Friedrichs are the two holdings of Abood: the requirement of “fair share” payments for members who opt out of union membership and the ability of the states to assess their employees for union expenses unrelated to collective bargaining. An alternative is for the courts to uphold “fair share” but mandate that workers must instead opt in to the other union expenses charged by the states.

Evenwel v. Abbott

Previously, the Supreme Court has held that voting districts within a state must relatively equal in population size. What has yet to be determined is if the population to be considered is the total population of the district or just the population engaged in voting. Evenwel v. Abbott will decide if one or the other should be considered in districting -- or if states can choose. 

Florida v. Georgia / Mississippi v. Tennessee 

Both of these cases involve disputes over water rights between states and stand to set important precedent on an issue of importance in the next several decades. In past, the court has been hesitant to decide on water usage disputes. Last year, the Supreme Court looked at Kansas v. Nebraska and Colorado, a tri-state water usage dispute. The court gave power to appointed special-masters to find equitable remedy of the tri-state water dispute over the Republican River.

In the Mississippi v. Tennessee case, the state of Mississippi alleges that water overuse on the Tennessee side of the border has caused water to be drawn across the state line. Florida v. Georgia is a suit against the state of Georgia for overuse of the water in the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint River Basin.

The Supreme Court lacks an appropriate standard for resolving interstate water usage disputes, but these cases could change that.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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