From mushroom advertising to law school admissions, from campaign finance limits to electronic data rules, the Supreme Court laid down the law on a broad range of topics on the last Monday of its current term.
Perhaps the most significant ruling Monday came from the Justices on the issue of campaign finance limits. By a 5-4 ruling in a fifteen-year-old case out of Colorado, the Court upheld federal limits on a generally outdated practice of "coordinated expenditures" between a political party and its candidate.
This ruling isn't quite on precise point with the current campaign finance debate in Congress - the Court wasn't asked to consider the constitutionality of a soft-money ban - but it certainly gives a boost, real or imagined, to proponents of such a ban because it is a sign from the Court that there can be federally-mandated restrictions on campaign spending. So look for campaign finance reformers to point to this decision as a sign from the Court that the proposed McCain-Feingold ban on soft money likely will pass Constitutional muster if and when the issue reaches the Court years from now.
On the other hand, look for opponents of a ban on soft money to claim that the ruling does nothing at all to set the stage for the Court's support of McCain-Feingold. This side of the fight will distinguish the Court's ruling factually from the soft-ban debate and will argue, certainly, that the "coordinated expenditures" which were the subject of today's ruling aren't really used anymore anyway. The truth is that no one really knows precisely how this ruling may affect a subsequent ruling from the Court on soft money.
Also Monday, there was an important non-decision by the Court on the issue of affirmative action. Asked, even begged, by the State of Texas to issue a ruling on the constitutionality of the University of Texas law school's affirmative action policy, the High Court took a pass and let stand a lower court ruling which effectively ended the policy.
Even though there is now a significant conflict among lower federal courts about these sorts of affirmative action policies, and even though the High Court frequently will issue a ruling on the merits of a case precisely to resolve such conflicts, the Justices apparently decided that the Texas case wasn't the appropriate case to accomplish this chore. So this area of the law continues to be in a limbo of sorts and everyone involved will now turn their attention to a similar case involving the University of Michigan Law School to see if that dispute reaches the Supreme Court.
The Court also declared by a 7-2 vote that free-lancers maintain a copyright to their work when it is stored online. To a certain extent, this ruling doesn't matter to most free-lancers, who for the past 10 years or so have been required to sign agreements ceding their online rights to publishers.
But it does affect contributors who provided work before those agreements were in vogue and it does man that publishers now will be forced to pay for work which now is stored online - either that or simply take the information off-line, a move at which many historians and scholars cringe.
In a larger sense, the copyright ruling is a sign from the High Court that existing copyright laws, enacted long before the age of the internet, will be applied to certain online activities. Indeed, the ruling could have ramifications for the recording industry - take the Napster case, for example - because it in no uncertain terms applies existing copyright laws to new technologies, the very argument made by recording company executives when they were battling the upstart music-sharing company.
Then there was a ruling in a case involving advertisements for mushrooms. By a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that the mushroom industry could not require its members to contribute to an advertising fund. The First Amendment, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote, "may prevent the government from compelling individuals to express certain views." The decision likely will affect other government-related industry organizations which may require their members to contribute when they don't want to.
Next up for the Court? A few more decisions to be released on Thursday before the Justices, and their clerks and staff, take off for their long summer break before the first Monday in October.
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