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Here’s What Supreme Court’s Latest Postponement Means for Education Cases

By Mark Walsh — April 03, 2020 3 min read

The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday postponed indefinitely its April argument session because of coronavirus concerns, and for the first time said it was considering “a range of scheduling options and other alternatives if arguments cannot be held in the courtroom before the end of the term.”

The April sitting included two or three cases of interest to educators, including a case on exemptions to the contraceptive coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act for religious employers, which has been of interest to religious schools and colleges.

Already, the court had postponed arguments in two consolidated cases about whether religious schools are exempt from employment discrimination claims brought by lay teachers. Those cases, St. James School v. Biel (No. 19-348) and Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru (No. 19-267), were to be argued April 1, on the last day of the March session.

In its announcement, the court reiterated that it “will continue to proceed with the resolution of all cases argued this term” and announce those decisions on its website.

Among the argued cases that remain pending are those involving a Montana tax credit program for donations to private school scholarships; cases about whether federal civil rights laws cover gay and transgender employees; and a case about whether President Donald Trump’s administration properly rescinded the immigration program known as DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.

Opinions in those cases could come anytime between now and the end of June. This coming Monday, April 6, is the next day when opinions are expected.

The court said it will consider rescheduling “some” of the 20 cases from the March and April arguments “if circumstances permit in light of public health and safety guidance at that time.” Some legal observers have suggested that most of the cases from the March and April sittings present relatively non-urgent legal questions that could easily be pushed back to the court’s next term. But a few cases, including two involving efforts by congressional committees and New York state prosecutors to obtain President Donald Trump’s financial records, are more time-sensitive, and the court may be trying to figure out a way to hold arguments in those cases yet this term.

Many advocates have suggested the court should do what some lower federal courts and state courts are doing by holding arguments via some form of video or telephone conference. This is not something the nine-member court would be eager to do, given the likely technological challenges and the fact that some justices might consider those options to be a camel’s nose under the tent for televising arguments in the courtroom once the virus crisis subsides. But the court’s reference to “other alternatives” suggests it has not ruled anything out at this point.

Here are the cases from the April sitting that are of some interest to educators:

Little Sisters of the Poor Saints Peter and Paul Home v. Pennsylvania (No. 19-431), consolidated with Trump v. Pennsylvania (No. 19-454): These are the latest in a long-running legal fight over the contraceptive-coverage mandate of the ACA, with several states challenging the Trump administration’s exemption for religious objectors.

The current exemption is broader than earlier versions, which had drawn distinctions that meant some Roman Catholic schools were exempt and others were not. In this case, several religious entities and the Trump administration are appealing a nationwide injunction that blocks the religious exemptions.

McGirt v. Oklahoma (No. 18-9526): In this case, the justices will again hear arguments about whether nearly half the state of Oklahoma is still an American Indian reservation, with implications for taxation, education, and criminal justice. The court heard arguments in a similar case last term, but did not reach a decision. The speculation is that with Justice Neil M. Gorsuch recused from that case, Carpenter v. Murphy, the other eight justices may have deadlocked.

The justices are reviewing an Oklahoma state court ruling in a criminal case that rejected the idea that under Supreme Court precedent some 3 million acres in eastern Oklahoma—including the city of Tulsa—are currently an Indian reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, based on 1866 territorial boundaries of the tribe. Briefs filed in the case argue that a ruling that much of Oklahoma was still “Indian country” would disrupt public education and other government services as they are currently provide in the state.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.

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