By: Andy Crawford
This is the second in what may be an ongoing series here on BBT.
Americans are doing well if they can stay informed on what the President and Congress are doing, much less the vast federal bureaucracy. Oftentimes, the Supreme Court is only an afterthought. Eighty percent of Americans can’t even name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Still, the Supreme Court continues to make decisions that shape and affect our everyday lives, and we should know what those are.
Here are three more cases you should know, and how they continue to affect us every day.
Buckley v. Valeo (1976)
For most of the 20th century there was an effort to get money out of politics. If donations and campaign spending were better regulated and limited, then there would be less corruption to distort the democratic process. In 1974, Congress took the step of limiting individual donations to campaigns, and regulating how much candidates for federal office could spend on their campaign. Groups from all over the political spectrum challenged the law, including the Libertarian Party and ACLU.
The Court struck down part of the law, finding that there was a connection between money and the First Amendment’s freedom of speech. “A restriction on the amount of money a person or group can spend on political communication during a campaign necessarily reduces the quantity of expression by restricting the number of issues discussed, the depth of their exploration, and the size of the audience reached.” For this reason, the Court struck down the law’s limits on how much money a campaign could spend. However, the Court found that reasonable limits on individual donations were permissible, as there was a compelling interest to quell corruption. In short, campaigns could spend all they want, but donors could not.
How this affects us today: Americans have come to dread election season, as they are inundated with political television ads, robo-calls, and junk mail. Candidates, and groups supporting or opposing them, continue to spend more and more money with no end in sight. Much of this can be traced to this opinion, and the price of free speech.
Plyer v. Doe (1982)
In 1975, Texas passed a law refusing public funding for children who were in the United States illegally. Texas argued that it could not be forced to provide an education to a sector of the population that did not pay taxes. Moreover, illegal immigrants had no standing to challenge the law under the 14th Amendment since they were not American citizens afforded rights under the Constitution.
In a 5-4 opinion, the Court ruled against Texas. First, the Court explained that the 14th Amendment reads that the State shall “not deny any person” equal protection under the law. Of course, immigrants are people so the 14th Amendment should apply. Secondly, the Court determined that Texas did not have a compelling interest to prohibit illegal immigrants from public school, as it would create an uneducated class that would ultimately rely on government assistance to survive in the future.
How this affects us today: As we face a humanitarian crisis with thousands of unaccompanied children pouring over the border, as well as the longstanding issue of illegal immigration from Hispanic countries, this decision is more important than ever. Some argue that a free education, as well as other social programs such as welfare and Medicaid, have only served to motivate immigrants to come into the country illegally without having to follow the legal process. This has led to an increase in entitlement spending without the tax base to support it. Others echo the Supreme Court, and point out that denying education, housing, and medical care to immigrants would be a cruel.
Riley v. California (2014)
David Riley was pulled over and searched by police, who discovered loaded firearms in the automobile. Officers also searched Riley’s phone, and discovered evidence connecting him to a shooting several days before. Riley challenged the search of his phone.
The Supreme Court ruled unanimously that in order for police to search a cell phone they needed the consent of the owner or a search warrant. During oral argument, Justice Scalia pointed out that previous precedent allows an officer to look through all items in a car as long as he has probable cause to search that car, including flipping through every page in a book. Indeed, it was difficult applying the Fourth Amendment, drafted in 1789 to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures, to the modern smart phone that contains a wealth of personal information of its owner. “The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought,” Chief Justice Roberts stated in his opinion.
How this affects us today: Unless you are some kind of Luddite, you probably have a smart phone. For that reason alone, it is important for you to understand what the government must do to access your personal information. Unless you give consent, police officers must first obtain a search warrant to access your phone. In this day and age where it seems privacy is becoming an illusion, some may find comfort in the Court’s decision.
Andy spent three years in law school, so he knows enough Supreme Court cases to write about 100 more articles like this one. (It was a long three years.)