Five key Supreme Court rulings coming this month

The nation's highest court is set to decide on gay marriage, affirmative action, voting rights, and the patenting of human genes.

WASHINGTON — It's decision time at the Supreme Court. Rulings are expected this month on key cases argued since October. Among the blockbusters: Two cases on gay marriage, plus major reviews of voting rights, affirmative action, and human DNA.

Here are summaries of five key cases and how the justices might decide.

The case: Hollingsworth v. Perry

What it's about: Gay marriage. The Supreme Court is the final stop for California's years-long battle over the issue. The state made gay marriage legal in 2008 and thousands of gay couples married during a 5-month period that year, but opponents marshaled their resources to pass a ballot initiative — Proposition 8 — that changed the state constitution and banned gay marriage. The state supreme court upheld the amendment in the face of a legal challenge, but a federal appellate court ruled it violates the U.S. Constitution, sending the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court this year.

What experts say: The court could rule that Proposition 8 violates the equal protection clause of the Constitution. That would be a huge win for gay marriage supporters, and would have implications in every state. Or it could reject that argument, leaving states free to pass (state) constitutional amendments banning gay marriage.

But it's likely that the court will rule on a more procedural issue – whether the supporters of Proposition 8 had "standing" to bring the issue to the Supreme Court in the first place. If the gay marriage opponents didn't have proper grounds to appeal to the Supreme Court (because they don't represent the government of California), then the lower court ruling would stand, meaning that Prop 8 is unconstitutional and same-sex couples can marry again in California.

Related:  Where gay marriage stands in all 50 states

The case: United States v. Windsor

What it's about: Gay marriage again. But this case is different. It isn't about whether same-sex couples are allowed to get married — that's up to the states — but whether the federal government grants the same legal rights to married same-sex couples as it does to "traditional" married couples of opposite genders.

Thousands of federal laws affect the rights of married couples — from whether they can file joint federal tax returns to whether one partner who is a U.S. citizen can help a non-citizen spouse get the right to live and work in the United States. In 1996, a Republican Congress and a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which says that for the purposes of all those federal laws, marriage means a man and a woman.

The case stems from an elderly New York woman's challenge to paying estate taxes on the money she inherited from her same-sex partner — a bill she wouldn't have had to pay if her partner were a man. But the basic question is whether it's constitutional for Congress to pass and enforce any law that treats same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently.

What experts say: Most Supreme Court observers expect DOMA to be overturned. But it's worth remembering that the court often manages to surprise even the experts, as it did last year when Chief Justice Roberts was the swing vote in a decision upholding President Obama's health care law. You can read more about the gay marriage cases at SCOTUSblog.

Related: Where companies stand on gay rights

The case: Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

What it's about: Affirmative action. A young woman is challenging the school's consideration of race in its undergraduate admissions decisions. Her legal team argued that she was denied admission to the school on the basis of race (she's white) while less-qualified students of other races were admitted. A state law requires students in the top 10 percent of their high school classes to be admitted and has boosted minority admissions in the face of previous challenges to affirmative action.

What experts say: The Supreme Court may well strike a blow to affirmative action. In the last major case to deal with the issue — a challenge to the University of Michigan Law School's policies in 2003 — the court backed the school's pro-affirmative action policies. But the makeup of the court has changed a lot since then. Most significantly, conservative Justice Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, who supported affirmative action and wrote the majority opinion in the Michigan case.

The case: Shelby County v. Holder

What it's about: The nearly 50-year-old Voting Rights Act, one of the landmark civil rights laws of the 1960s. One provision of the Voting Rights Act, Section 5, requires that certain jurisdictions with a historical connection to civil rights violations — mostly in the South — must get federal approval, in advance, before making any changes to their voting laws or procedures.Congress has repeatedly renewed that provision (it was originally only written to last for five years, beginning in 1965), but places like Shelby County, Ala., have challenged the rule as an unfair burden and an outdated "punishment" for past civil rights abuses that is hardly necessary in the age of our first black president.

What experts say: It's a toss-up. As the New York Times' Adam Liptak reports, "Many predicted that the court would strike down Section 5 in 2009, and they were wrong. Observers who make the same prediction today may suffer the same fate. But evidence suggests that the court’s five more conservative members may be prepared to take on at least one aspect of the law." Specifically, they could ask Congress to re-evaluate the "coverage formula" that determines where Section 5 applies. In this gridlocked Congress, that might have the same effect as scrapping the law altogether.

The case: Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc.

UPDATE (HOW THE COURT RULED): On June 13, the Supreme Court ruled that human genes cannot be patented. In a unanimous decision, the court said synthetically produced genetic material can be patented but that genes extracted from the human body, known as isolated DNA, do not merit the same legal protections. Related: What the DNA ruling means.

What it's about: Can human genes be patented? It's a question with massive ethical and medical implications for our future.

A Utah company, Myriad Genetics, helped identify a small section of human DNA that is a strong predictor of breast cancer. It developed a test for that DNA marker and profits from selling the test. But Myriad's argument goes further, saying that since it found this little section of DNA, it essentially planted a flag there, and any researcher that wants to work with it has to pay the company a licensing fee.

Universities, patient groups and civil rights groups like the ACLU have lined up against Myriad's position, saying that it stifles research and that a company can't "own" a part of the code that makes you, you.

What experts say: The Supreme Court justices may be extraordinary legal thinkers, but when it comes to advanced biotechnology, they know about as much as you and me. At arguments, they didn't seem to buy the notion that a company can lay claim to a snippet of DNA, even if identifying it was a major breakthrough.

“There is a strong aversion to patents that cover any aspect of the human body,” Andrew Torrance, who teaches patent and biodiversity law at the University of Kansas, told Bloomberg News. "It's gut-level principle. We don’t like the thought of humans as property, and we think of patents as property.”


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