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High-stakes battles await justices as Supreme Court opens new term

What role could Barrett play on high court?
What role could Trump's Supreme Court nominee play in upcoming cases if she's confirmed? 05:44

Washington — When the Supreme Court kicks off its new term on Monday, it will do so against the backdrop of a high-stakes confirmation battle as the Senate considers the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to succeed the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the high court. But adding to the political storm set to envelop the Supreme Court is the November presidential election, the outcome of which President Trump is predicting could be determined by the justices.

Already on the docket for the Supreme Court this term are blockbuster disputes involving the Affordable Care Act and special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Court watchers are also warning the 2020 general election could bring with it a legal battle that puts the Supreme Court in the middle of the contest between Mr. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The high court has already been asked to weigh in on a number of election-related disputes, as officials in numerous states have rushed to expand vote-by-mail for the November contest and loosen voting restrictions in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the cases awaiting action from the court is a request from Pennsylvania Republicans to halt a decision from the state's high court allowing mail-in ballots received three days after the election to be counted. South Carolina Republicans also asked the Supreme Court on Thursday to reinstate its witness requirement for absentee ballots.

As it did at the end of its last term, the high court will hear oral arguments for its first sitting remotely and by telephone, as the coronavirus pandemic forced the Supreme Court in March to close its doors to the public indefinitely. The 10 cases slated to be argued remotely in October were initially scheduled for March and April, but postponed because of the pandemic. It's unclear whether the Supreme Court will resume in-person arguments in November.

Decisions in the cases before the justices this term are expected by the end of June 2021.

Here are the major legal battles to be heard by the Supreme Court this term.

Religious liberty and LGBTQ rights

On November 4, the Supreme Court will weigh a dispute that stands at the intersection of religious liberty and LGBTQ rights. At issue in the case, known as Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, is whether Philadelphia violated the First Amendment by excluding a religious foster care agency, Catholic Social Services, from its foster care system because the agency declines to place foster children with same-sex couples.

Catholic Social Services is one of 30 agencies in Philadelphia that provides services for foster parents and children, but in early 2018, the city cut off foster care referrals to the agency after learning it did not work with same-sex couples because of its religious objections to gay marriage.

In response to the freeze by Philadelphia officials, Catholic Social Services and a group of foster parents filed a lawsuit against the city in May 2018, arguing it was targeted by city officials and the decision to stop foster care referrals was unconstitutional.

But the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the city and found it did not treat Catholic Social Services worse than it would have treated another organization that didn't work with same-sex couples but had different religious beliefs.

The Affordable Care Act

One week after the general election, on November 10, the justices are poised to consider again the fate of the Affordable Care Act, the 2010 health care law enacted under former President Barack Obama's administration. In 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the law's individual mandate in a pivotal decision, in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined the four liberal justices in ruling that Congress had the authority to enforce the mandate under its taxing power.

In this case, known as California v. Texas, Republican-led states and the Trump administration argue Obamacare's individual mandate is unconstitutional, as the 2017 tax reform package eliminated the financial penalty for individuals who do not have health insurance. The red states and the Justice Department also say that the full health care law should be struck down because it cannot stand without the individual mandate.

Senate Democrats have made the Obamacare case an integral part of their campaign against the nomination of Barrett, a judge on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A vote to confirm Barrett, they argue, is effectively a vote to kill Obamacare and strip protections from people with pre-existing conditions. Democrats cite a 2017 essay from Barrett as evidence she would vote to strike down the health care law, as she wrote then that Roberts "pushed the Affordable Care Act beyond its plausible meaning to save the statute."

Mueller grand jury documents 

On December 2, the justices are set to consider a showdown between the Justice Department and House Democrats over the disclosure of secret grand-jury materials from Mueller's investigation, which concluded last year.

The battle between the Trump administration and the Democrat-led House Judiciary Committee dates back to April 2019 after the release of Mueller's long-awaited report on Russia interference. The report contained some redactions, including grand jury materials and testimony. 

While the Justice Department said it would allow congressional leaders and selects staff to see unredacted versions of the report, it would not disclose the grand jury documents, as rules governing those proceedings dictate that matters occurring before a grand jury must remain secret.

The House Judiciary Committee, however, asked a federal district court in Washington to authorize the disclosure of all redacted portions of Mueller's report, including underlying grand jury transcripts and exhibits, as part of its impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump.

Both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled in favor of House Democrats in March. But the Supreme Court blocked lawmakers from obtaining the grand jury documents while it considers the case.

As a result of the Supreme Court's action in the legal fight, Democrats won't gain access to the materials until after the November 3 election. If Mr. Trump loses the White House or Republicans take control of the House, it could foreclose the need for a ruling from the Supreme Court. 

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