Obama's Disappointing Year at the Supreme Court

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From recess appointments to warrantless cellphone searches to Obamacare, the White House lost big this term at SCOTUS.

July 1, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court went out with a bang on Monday, ending its 2013-2014 term with Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., in which the Court held that the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act violated federal law by placing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion when it required two "closely held" private corporations to cover certain forms of birth control in their employee health plans.

It was a painful legal defeat for the Obama administration—and it was not the only such defeat in recent days. In fact, in the past month alone, the White House has suffered a series of embarrassing losses at the Supreme Court, where it failed to prevail on issues ranging from the scope of the Fourth Amendment to the limits of executive power. To make matters worse, the president lost all but one of those cases by a vote of 9-0. Here's a quick recap of Obama's dismal finish this year at the Supreme Court.

Bond v. United States

Obama's troubles began on June 2 with the Supreme Court's unanimous ruling in Bond v. United States. At issue was the criminal prosecution of a woman named Carol Ann Bond, who was sentenced to six years in federal prison under the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act for smearing two toxic substances on the mailbox, door knob, and car door of a woman who had been carrying on an affair with Bond's husband. The victim suffered only a minor burn to her hand.

According to the Obama administration, however, federal prosecutors were fully justified in treating this soap opera-like crime as a chemical weapons attack thanks to the executive branch's broad power to make and enforce treaties with foreign governments, including the Chemical Weapons Convention.

But the Supreme Court practically laughed that view out of court. In the words of the Court's unanimous opinion, the White House's "boundless" interpretation of the chemical weapons law "would transform the statute from one whose core concerns are acts of war, assassination, and terrorism into a massive federal anti-poisoning regime that reaches the simplest of assaults." As the Court put it, "There is no reason to think the sovereign nations that ratified the [Chemical Weapons] Convention were interested in anything like Bond's common law assault."

Riley v. California

Three weeks later, on June 25, the Supreme Court once again ruled 9-0 against the Obama administration, this time rejecting the White House's sweeping view that the police should not be required to obtain a warrant before searching the cellphones of individuals they have placed under arrest. "Although cell phones can contain a great deal of personal information,” the Obama administration told the justices in one legal filing, "so can many other items that officers have long had authority to search, and the search of a cell phone is no more intrusive than other actions that the police may take once a person has been lawfully arrested."

The Supreme Court took the opposite view, endorsing a robust vision of the Fourth Amendment as a key safeguard in our increasingly hi-tech age. "Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cell phone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple," declared Chief Justice John Roberts, "get a warrant."

National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning

Just 24 hours later, the White House found itself on the receiving end of yet another unanimous Supreme Court benchslap. At issue in National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning was President Obama's three purported recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board in January 2012. The problem with those appointments was that the Senate was not actually in recess at the time—Senate Republicans were then holding pro forma sessions precisely so that Obama could not legally invoke his recess appointment power. But the president went ahead and made the appointments anyway, triggering a constitutional clash between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government.

In its June 26 decision, the Supreme Court came down 9-0 against the president's one-sided actions. "In our view," declared the majority opinion of Justice Stephen Breyer, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, "the pro forma sessions count as sessions, not as periods of recess." Therefore, "We hold that, for purposes of the Recess Appointments Clause, the Senate is in session when it says it is."

Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.

Which brings us to Hobby Lobby, Obama's final defeat of the 2013-2014 Supreme Court term. Here, by a vote of 5-4, the Court rejected the administration's claim that Hobby Lobby did not suffer a "substantial" injury under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act when the arts-and-crafts retailer was forced to cover four methods of birth control in its employee health plans that it finds objectionable on religious grounds, such as the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B.

Furthermore, the White House failed to persuade seven members of the Court to take its side on the related question of whether for-profit corporations should be allowed to raise religious objections to federal laws in the first place. Although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor did agree with the president on that point, Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan did not. Instead, Breyer and Kagan filed a separate dissent which declared, "We need not and do not decide whether either for-profit corporations or their owners may bring claims under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993." Put differently, the White House was beaten by a vote of 5-2 on that critical question.

In sum, the Obama administration lost big on some of the biggest legal issues of the day, failing to garner even a single vote in cases dealing with prosecutorial overreach, the Fourth Amendment, and executive power. To say the least, it has been a supremely disappointing performance from the former constitutional law lecturer who now occupies the White House.

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  • Libertarian||#

    Say what you will, but Obama is bringing the country together. First, Republicans, no matter how disingenuously, are joining the Dems in the anti-war camp. Secondly, it now seems that the 9 members of the Supreme Court are even agreeing on decisions.

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  • Knarf Yenrab!||#

    Most of the GOP I've seen have condemned Obama for pulling out of Iraq. The neocons have taken over that party so completely that they berate Obama for abiding by a treaty agreed to by Bush even when Obama did everything of his power short of war to keep US troops in Iraq.

    So Obama wants to do the wrong thing, but is forced to do the right thing by Bush, while the neocons yell at Obama for failing to do the wrong thing because Bush forced him to do the right thing.

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  • NebulousFocus||#

    Feds force Greenwald to delay his release:

    @ggreenwald · 9h
    After 3 months working on our story, USG today suddenly began making new last-minute claims which we intend to investigate before publishing

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  • gaijin||#

    Who/what is USG?

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  • UnCivilServant||#

    I'm guessing "United States Government" That was a twit NF quoted, not an article, so there was a shortage of characters.

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  • gaijin||#

    INteresting. Seems then like the USG could keep making new claims every time a story was imminent...a principled journo could be perpetually delayed. Or at least until they front ran the story.

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  • Swiss Servator, CH yeah!||#

    United States Gypsum - they swing big dick...

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  • gaijin||#

    Those alabastards!

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  • Sevo||#

    Big Plaster!

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  • UnCivilServant||#

    I'd missed the opinion in the chemical weapons case. Good to know it turned out sane.

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  • some guy||#

    I've said it before and I'll say it again. There should be consequences to an administration if they lose SCOTUS cases 9-0. If they can't even get one justice on their side then they should have known what they were trying was illegal. Same goes for Congress.

    Suggested penalties:

    - Impeachment of the executive for a 9-0 illegal executive order.
    - Impeachment of all sponsors for a 9-0 illegal bill AND impeachment of the executive if he did not veto the 9-0 illegal bill.

    Of course, putting these rules into effect would change the way justices vote. You'd have a lot more 8-1 losses as justices shielded their benefactors.

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  • Brian D||#

    Not unless you mean an immediate guilty verdict in an impeachment trial. You could hold trials and have impeachments fail on party lines.

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  • UnCivilServant||#

    I've always wanted to make it so that in order to pass any budget or revenue bill that was higher than the previous year, the sponsors would have to commit seppuku on the House floor, so they'd better really want that increase in spending.

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  • Brian D||#

    Brings new meaning to the phrase 'nothing left to cut.'

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  • Scarecrow Repair||#

    Since juries have to agree unanimously or the prosecution loses, so should appeals courts.

    And if appeals courts can't agree unanimously one way or the other on the constitutionality of a law, the law is voided entirely on the grounds that it is unclear.

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  • Rich||#

    And if appeals courts can't agree unanimously one way or the other on the constitutionality of a law, the law is voided entirely on the grounds that it is unclear.

    This. If a law is so poorly "crafted" that the *highest Constitutional scholars in the land* cannot agree on it -- back to the drawing board.

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  • ||#

    "If they can't even get one justice on their side then they should have known what they were trying was illegal."

    Didn't he just pronounce that he was going to fix immigration without congress? Didn't he just suggest that if congress wants to stop his Oneness they should go ahead and pass the laws he wants so that he doesn't have to go around them?

    He knows full well that he is outside of his constitutional bounds and doesn't give half of a shit. With Reid in the Senate and Holder in the AG's office he knows that he can't really be held accountable for anything he does.

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  • gaijin||#

    The Constitutional Scholar should ask for his tuition back from Hahvuhd.

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  • Rich||#

    To say the least, it has been a supremely disappointing performance from the former constitutional law lecturer who now occupies the White House.

    Emphasis added. Nice.

    If we can't see O's college records, how about his lecture notes?

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  • ||#

    I suspect all that shit will come out one of these days and it will be, like everything else obozo, worse than we imagined.

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  • BBB||#

    Two points:

    1. I'd happily trade the Hobby Lobby decision for the decision two years ago that declared Obamacare a "tax". That last one is still a huge victory for Obama, and it's worth half a dozen defeats, easily.

    2. Why isn't anyone pursuing the Constitutional procedural transgressions of Obamacare's passage? Such as: a) if it was a "tax" it the legislation should have originated in the House (Article I.7), not the Senate. b) How can the House "deem" legislation to have passed, when in fact, the specific legislation text did NOT pass on a House vote?

    I know these criminals, err....politicians, all think the Constitution is for chumps, but ,seriously....

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  • Sevo||#

    "2. Why isn't anyone pursuing the Constitutional procedural transgressions of Obamacare's passage? Such as: a) if it was a "tax" it the legislation should have originated in the House (Article I.7), not the Senate. b) How can the House "deem" legislation to have passed, when in fact, the specific legislation text did NOT pass on a House vote?"

    I also wonder why the GOP isn't after him for his 'executive actions' modifying a law passed by congress.
    I don't yet think the title "Your Majesty" yet goes with election to the presidency.

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