Gwen’s Take: How the Supreme Court Might Change Your Life

BY Gwen Ifill  June 20, 2013 at 6:33 PM EDT

We are entering the last week of June, which means it’s time for the annual waiting game.

Are we waiting for sweet corn? For the neighborhood pool to open? For Congress to leave town?

No. As always, we are waiting for the Supreme Court.

Tom Goldstein, the lawyer who runs the closely-watched ScotusBlog, captured it best on Thursday, as we were all refreshing our browsers, hoping for news of hot Supreme Court decision-making.

His comment, posted at 10:06 a.m, was: “fingers drumming on desk.”

The time stamp mattered, because the court normally releases its opinions shortly after 10 a.m. on the days they set aside to issue decisions. By 10:30, we know there will be no more decisions made that day.

No matter how the dominoes fall, next week’s decisions will not be theoretical

This year, partisans of all stripes and reporters — not to mention citizens — of all platforms have particular reason to stay perched at the edge of our seats.

There are nearly a dozen cases left to be decided, but with barely a week left in the court’s term, here are the ones we await with bated breath. Taken together and interpreted broadly, the court decisions could well redefine civil rights in this country.

Affirmative Action

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin was argued last October, making it the longest standing case — and perhaps most eagerly awaited — remaining on the docket.

The plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, is a white woman who argues she was denied an undergraduate slot because the state chose to reserve admission for minority candidates.

The Texas system has a two-tier admission procedure which reserves space for every Texas student who ranks in the top 10 percent of his or her high school graduating class. That fills up most of the class. But the university also sets aside about 19 percent of its offers for admission to students who possess other qualities — among them, status as a racial minority. Fisher did not place among the top 10 percent, and argues she suffered reverse discrimination when she was denied admission.

If the court rules for Fisher, it does not entirely destroy all affirmative action programs, but it sets the stage for it. Another case, this one from Michigan, is being teed up for the next court term. Advocates on both sides of that long-running argument are watching closely. The question is, how far will the justices go?

And don’t look for a typical 5 to 4 split on this one. Justice Elena Kagan has recused herself from the case.

Voting Rights (Shelby County v. Holder)

Since 1965, the federal government has held certain jurisdictions — most of them in the South — to a higher standard when it came to protecting voting rights for minorities.

Among those that fell under this special scrutiny is Shelby County, Ala., where local officials cannot so much as shift the location of polling place without getting the Justice Department’s permission first. This “pre-clearance” rule — embedded in Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act — applies to nine states, and to jurisdictions in seven more.

The government has paid special attention to laws that require photo identification or changed district lines, and Section 5 has been extended twice in the intervening 48 years.

There was good reason for this in the days when local officials went out of their way to create hurdles to prevent black voters from exercising their franchise. But states like Alabama — and others in the pipeline as well — say times have changed, and the need to prove they are not discriminating has passed.

Gay Marriage

There are actually two cases before the court. One would reverse a statute — the Defense of Marriage Act — that defines marriage as between a man and a woman (United States v. Windsor). The measure, which was actually signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton, has long rankled those who believe the government is enforcing inequality by denying gay couples access to federal benefits like Social Security survivor benefits.

But for those who interpret the meaning of marriage more narrowly, government approval is considered a bridge too far.

The second case, which comes from California, could reinstate a state ballot initiative known as Proposition 8, which prohibited marriage between same-sex couples (Hollingsworth v. Perry). Supporters of Prop 8 believe marriage should be reserved for those who can procreate biologically. Opponents say this is, essentially, none of the government’s business.

No matter how the dominoes fall, next week’s decisions will not be theoretical. The outcomes will be immediate and easy to grasp, affecting the lives of students and families and aspirational Americans of all sorts.

But for now, we wait. And drum our fingers on our desks.

Editor’s note: This text has been corrected to reflect that Proposition 8 prohibits same-sex marriage.