Trump’s Taxes, Birth Control, ‘Faithless Electors’ Headline Supreme Court’s Historic Phone Arguments

The building of the U.S. Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2020.
The building of the U.S. Supreme Court is pictured in Washington, D.C., U.S., January 19, 2020. REUTERS/Will Dunham

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BY MARCIA COYLE / PBS NewsHour

During historic telephonic arguments this week and next, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up major challenges involving access to President Donald Trump’s financial records, birth control health insurance, “faithless electors” in presidential elections and the constitutionality of the federal ban on robocalls, among others.

The justices will hear arguments in 10 cases over the two-week period. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the court and the lawyers in those cases will appear remotely. The nation may tune into those arguments because the justices– in another break with tradition– are providing a live audio feed to certain media outlets, who, in turn, will make the audio more widely available.

LISTEN LIVE: Supreme Court hears arguments by phone

All 10 cases have fascinating legal or social aspects to them, but five in particular have significant legal or practical implications and are likely to garner headlines for the arguments and the justices’ final decisions in them.

Week 1: Birth Control and RoboCalls

On Wednesday, May 6, the justices will hear arguments on two very different issues.

Affordable Care Act and birth control

First on the agenda at 10 a.m. are two cases that have been merged for arguments: Little Sisters of the Poor v. Pennsylvania and Trump v. Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania and New Jersey successfully challenged in the lower courts the Trump administration’s categorical exemption of both for-profit and nonprofit employers with religious or moral objections to providing female employees with contraceptive insurance coverage from the requirement under the Affordable Care Act and its implementing rules. The expansion of the religious exemption and the addition of the “moral objection” were new features of the rules.

The federal agencies involved in implementing the Affordable Care Act estimated that between 70,000 and 126,000 women would lose contraception coverage in one year under these rules. A federal district court, later affirmed by an appellate court, blocked the new rules by a nationwide injunction against their enforcement.

In the Supreme Court case, the Trump administration argues that the lower courts were wrong to find that the administration violated the federal Administrative Procedure Act by not publishing notice and an opportunity for public comment before the contraception rules were final. It also claims that the Affordable Care Act’s text and the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act require or authorize the expanded exemptions.

The ACA’s birth control coverage, part of a comprehensive package of preventive care and screenings for women, has been under legal attack almost from the beginning, mainly by religious organizations and anti-abortion groups. Wednesday’s cases will mark the third time that the justices have faced a related challenge.

The First Amendment and cell phones

When the justices finish hearing the birth control cases, they take up a First Amendment case with huge practical consequences for cell phone owners. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits automated calls to cell phones– except in emergencies– without the called party’s consent. In 2015, Congress amended the law to add another exception to the ban: calls made solely to collect a debt owed to the government.

The “government debt-exception” triggered the First Amendment challenge by some political organizations and consultants who successfully argued that the robocall ban, as amended by the exception, was an unconstitutional content-based restriction on speech. As they claimed, the amended law allowed speech that “discusses only the collection of government-backed debt” but prohibited speech on any other topic. They contended the only remedy was to strike down the entire law. The lower appellate court ruled the government debt exception was a content-based restriction on speech, but the remedy was to sever the exception from the law.

In the case, Barr v. American Association of Political Consultants, the Trump administration argues that the debt exception does not regulate speech, only a type of economic activity. But if the justices disagree, the administration contends, the 1991 law has a provision that requires the severing of any provisions found to be unconstitutional or illegal, leaving the rest of the law intact.

Week 2: Trump’s taxes and “faithless electors”

The hard-fought battles between Trump and U.S. House investigating committees and a state grand jury for access to the president’s taxes and other personal financial records come to a head in the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 12.

Trump and banks

In Trump v. Mazars, joined with Trump v. Deutsche Bank, the president’s private lawyers argue that three House investigating committees did not have constitutional or statutory authority to issue subpoenas to Mazars (Trump’s accounting firm) and two of the president’s banks (Deutsche and Capital One). His lawyers argue that the subpoenas lacked explicit authorization by the House, as required by its rules, and they lacked a “legitimate legislative purpose,” as required by Supreme Court precedents.

The committees counter that they have multiple legislative purposes and they name them in their court briefs. They also point to House-passed resolutions that, they claim, authorize the subpoenas. And, because the subpoenas were issued to third parties (banks and an accounting firm), they will not interfere in any way with Trump’s ability to perform his duties as president.