It's fall—leaves are bronzing, squirrels are squirreling, and the Supreme Court of the United States is back in session. Some of the most highly anticipated cases the court will likely hear in the next year have to do with hot topics in American politics: affirmative action, abortion, and voting rights.
These three subjects can bring out some passionate opinions, but what's often missing is the research and data to provide some empirical context for proposed policies. Not to worry, however, Pacific Standard is here to help. What follows is our research guide to SCOTUS' hottest cases for 2015 and 2016. Bring us with you to your next party!
1. AFFIRMATIVE ACTION
The Supreme Court will likely re-try Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, the case in which Abigail Fisher, a white American, sued the university, claiming she unfairly wasn't accepted to the school because of her race. The case will hinge on whether the University of Texas–Austin's admissions office is able to show it has no choice but to consider race to create healthy diversity in the school.
We can't say whether UT–Austin will pass legal muster, but we do know that studies show well thought-out affirmative action policies in universities benefit both white students and underrepresented minorities. One study of three universities found that, when discussion groups include a better balance of black and white students, the groups bring up more novel ideas and the students think in more complex ways. Another study, of students at one Illinois university, found that those who come from diverse high schools have higher GPAs in college compared to their peers who attended high schools that are of equal academic quality, but less diverse.
While individual Asian American and white American students may feel that affirmative action acts as "reverse racism," as a whole, white students who encounter classmates who've benefited from affirmative action tend to say they appreciate their school's diversity efforts.
Before the end of the session next June, SCOTUS will likely re-hear a case challenging laws in Texas that set unrealistic standards for abortion clinics and doctors. Texas' latest laws require doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital, while clinics must be equipped like outpatient surgery centers—which opponents say creates undue difficulties for clinics. (More than half of the state's clinics closed because nearby hospitals refused to give abortion doctors admitting privileges, or because they couldn't afford an upgrade, NPR reports.) Proponents for these standards counter that they're necessary to protect women getting abortions; in the event of an emergency, abortion doctors could follow their patients to the hospital and take care of them there, instead of handing them off to hospital staff. But studies show that, for the vast majority of the time, such higher medical standards are not necessary for the health and safety of women getting abortions.
In 2011, more than 91 percent of abortions performed in the U.S. were either medical abortions—where the patient takes a pill, usually mifepristone—or first-trimester, surgical abortions. These types of abortions are generally very safe. One recent review found that only one-half of one percent of first-trimester, aspiration abortions (a popular type of surgical abortion) had complications serious enough that the woman had to visit a hospital. Laws like Texas' are "unlikely to improve the safety" of such abortions, that study's authors concluded. Meanwhile, the complication rate of mifepristone is 0.02 percent.
About nine percent of abortions in the U.S. are surgical abortions performed after the first trimester. These later abortions are riskier; the risk of death grows "exponentially" with each passing week. In 2010, the latest year for which such data is available, 10 women are known to have died from complications of legal abortions in the U.S. Pregnancy in the U.S. is comparatively much more dangerous, however: About 650 Americans die every year from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.
Having more clinics may reduce these later, riskier abortions. The most common reason people cite for having an abortion later than they would like is because it took them a while to make arrangements. Texas' laws may make those arrangements even more difficult, as they would leave only 10 clinics open in the state, forcing some Texans to drive up to 150 miles for an abortion.
3. VOTING RIGHTS
Right now, every state creates legislative districts to divvy up the population equally. That doesn't mean districts all have the same number of voters, though. Districts with more children, immigrants who aren't citizens, prisoners, and ex-felons will end up with fewer eligible voters among them, which means those voters that do live there hold more powerful votes. In a new case, Texas voters Sue Evenwel and Edward Pfenninger want their state to re-draw districts so they include equal numbers of eligible voters. Evenwel and Pfenninger are arguing that, because they live in districts with a high number of eligible voters, their individual votes don't matter as much. The move is expected to reduce the influence of voters in cities, which often have more immigrants and children. Meanwhile, voters in older, whiter, and more rural areas may find themselves with more powerful votes than they had before.
If Evenwel and Pfenninger win their case, how else will voting in America change? The contested question of whether and when felons should be allowed to vote will become more important, as it plays a key role in affecting how some districts are re-drawn. And, because black and Hispanic men are disproportionately incarcerated in the U.S., states' policies on felons voting may affect how strong of a voice communities of color have in newly re-drawn legislative districts.