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Abortion, race, immigration among last Supreme Court cases

Court rules in favor of police in search case
The Supreme Court has eight remaining cases to rule on and could wrap up the session by next week.

WASHINGTON – It happens every June. The Supreme Court nears the finish line with the most contentious cases still to be resolved.

This year is no exception. Among the court’s eight remaining cases are regulation of Texas abortion clinics, race in college admissions, protections for people living in the U.S. illegally and the public corruption conviction of Virginia’s former governor.

What is unusual is that the decisions are being made by eight justices since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February.

Some of those cases still could end in a 4-4 tie that would leave the lower court decision in place without setting a nationwide precedent. In rare instances, the justices will put off decisions and order a case to be argued again in the next term. But they may be less inclined to do that this year because it is unclear when a ninth justice will join the court. Senate Republicans are refusing to vote on the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to replace Scalia.

Late June often is when a retirement is announced, but voluntary departures from the court almost never happen in election years.

The justices handed down five rulings Monday and will decide more cases on Thursday. They could wind up their work by early next week.

A look at some of the cases that remain:

Abortion: Texas abortion clinics are challenging a state law and regulations that already have cut the number of abortion providers in half, to roughly 20. Fewer than 10 would remain if the 2013 law were allowed to take full effect. One positive sign for the clinics is that only Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who generally side with abortion rights advocates, have yet to write opinions from the session in late February and early March when the case was argued. Each justice typically writes at least one majority opinion from each argument session.Affirmative action: Argued in early December, the challenge to the use of race in admission to the University of Texas remains undecided. There is no chance of a tie in this case because only seven justices are taking part. Kagan is out because she worked on an earlier version while serving in the Justice Department. This is the second time the case has been at the Supreme Court. An inconclusive outcome three years ago paved the way for Round 2 and the potential for the court to eliminate race as a factor in admissions at the state’s flagship campus in Austin.Immigration: The fate of two programs that could shield roughly 4 million people from deportation and make them eligible to work in the United States hangs in the balance. President Barack Obama announced the programs in November 2014 and they were soon challenged in court by Texas and 25 other states. Federal courts have sided with the states and put the programs on hold pending a decision from the Supreme Court. Anything other than a ruling quickly clearing away the obstacles dooms the programs from being put into place during the remaining few months of Obama’s presidency.Public corruption: The justices seemed likely to side with former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is challenging his conviction for accepting gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement. A ruling for McDonnell could make it harder to prosecute public officials.

Police powers

Abortion: Texas abortion clinics are challenging a state law and regulations that already have cut the number of abortion providers in half, to roughly 20. Fewer than 10 would remain if the 2013 law were allowed to take full effect. One positive sign for the clinics is that only Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan, who generally side with abortion rights advocates, have yet to write opinions from the session in late February and early March when the case was argued. Each justice typically writes at least one majority opinion from each argument session.Affirmative action: Argued in early December, the challenge to the use of race in admission to the University of Texas remains undecided. There is no chance of a tie in this case because only seven justices are taking part. Kagan is out because she worked on an earlier version while serving in the Justice Department. This is the second time the case has been at the Supreme Court. An inconclusive outcome three years ago paved the way for Round 2 and the potential for the court to eliminate race as a factor in admissions at the state’s flagship campus in Austin.Immigration: The fate of two programs that could shield roughly 4 million people from deportation and make them eligible to work in the United States hangs in the balance. President Barack Obama announced the programs in November 2014 and they were soon challenged in court by Texas and 25 other states. Federal courts have sided with the states and put the programs on hold pending a decision from the Supreme Court. Anything other than a ruling quickly clearing away the obstacles dooms the programs from being put into place during the remaining few months of Obama’s presidency.Public corruption: The justices seemed likely to side with former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who is challenging his conviction for accepting gifts and loans from a wealthy businessman in exchange for promoting a dietary supplement. A ruling for McDonnell could make it harder to prosecute public officials.A divided Court bolstered police powers on Monday, ruling that evidence of a crime in some cases may be used against a defendant even if the police did something wrong or illegal in obtaining it.

The 5-3 decision drew heated dissents from liberal justices who warned that the outcome would encourage police to violate people’s rights.

The ruling comes in a case in which a police detective illegally stopped defendant Joseph Edward Strieff on the streets of South Salt Lake City. A name check revealed an outstanding warrant for him.

Police Detective Doug Fackrell arrested Strieff and routinely searched him, finding that he was carrying methamphetamine.

The case raised the question of whether the valid warrant outweighs the stop, which was illegal because Fackrell lacked any reasonable suspicion that Strieff had been violating the law. It was the court’s latest case that questions whether evidence should be thrown out of court because the police did something wrong or illegal that led to the discovery of the evidence.

Justice Clarence Thomas said for the court that the officer’s actions were not a flagrant violation of the law. “While Officer Fackrell’s decision to initiate the stop was mistaken, his conduct thereafter was lawful,” Thomas wrote.

But Justice Sonia Sotomayor said in dissent that the decision is a blow to constitutional rights.

“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” Sotomayor wrote, joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

In a portion of her opinion that expressed only her own views, Sotomayor also described the “humiliations” of unjustified police searches and said that “people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.”

Justice Kagan filed a separate dissent in which she said the ruling “creates unfortunate incentives for the police – indeed practically invites them to do what Fackrell did here.”

The fourth member of the court’s liberal wing, Justice Breyer, joined the four conservatives to form a majority on the eight-justice court.

Smokers’ suit

The Court on Monday also rejected an appeal from Illinois smokers who sought reinstatement of a $10.1 billion class-action judgment in a long-running lawsuit against Philip Morris.

The justices did not comment in leaving in place an Illinois Supreme Court ruling in favor of the cigarette maker. The smokers objected to the participation of state Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who they said benefited from tobacco money in his retention election.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Illinois smokers, was one of the nation’s first to accuse a tobacco company of consumer fraud. Known as Price v. Phillip Morris, the lawsuit claimed that Philip Morris deceptively marketed “light” and “low-tar” Marlboro cigarettes as a healthier alternative. The federal government now bars cigarette makers from labeling their products with such terms.

“Today’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court effectively ends this case once and for all,” Murray Garnick, an attorney and spokesman for Philip Morris’ parent company, Altria Group Inc., said in a statement.

“Losing any case after 17 years of intense litigation is obviously disappointing,” Stephen Tillery, a St. Louis-based lawyer for the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “But all of us who represented the plaintiffs in ‘Price’ feel that the case was socially significant and brought into public view facts that needed to be revealed.”

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