Orders and Opinions: Mandatory Minimums, Religious Freedom & Gay Rights

As we look ahead to the week at SCOTUS, here’s a recap of last week’s orders and opinions.


        In its June 4 orders, the Court called for the views of the Solicitor General regarding Airline Service Providers Association v. Los Angeles World Airports. The Court is considering whether to hear this case, which  involves the authority of state and local government to impose on private companies rules relating to labor-relation questions that federal law already regulates. Federal labor laws generally preempt any contrary state or local law. But the Court has recognized a “market participant exception” to this rule in situations where the local government uses its sovereign power not to regulate the market but to purchase goods and services from other market participants. In 2014, Los Angeles applied a rule to the city’s main airport requiring airline service providers to enter into “labor peace” agreements with unions. Airline Service Providers Association challenged the policy, arguing that federal law  preempts such a rule. The Ninth Circuit disagreed, applying the market participant exception. You can find coverage of the case in the LA Times and Bloomberg. Also useful is this short article from last summer’s ABA newsletter on the role of the Solicitor General in helping the Court decide whether to review a case.

Over a dissent by Justice Sotomayor, the Court denied certiorari in Trevino v. Davis. Carlos Trevino, convicted of  rape and murder, claims his due process rights were violated because at sentencing his attorney failed to present evidence that he had been affected by his mother’s abuse of alcohol during pregnancy. The Fifth Circuit rejected Trevino’s claim that this amounted to ineffective assistance of counsel because the evidence contained both mitigating and aggravating factors. In her dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued that new mitigating evidence should be viewed alongside all aggravating evidence in post-conviction hearings and that in this case the evidence would have helped the jury to understand the circumstances leading up to the crime. The Court’s refusal to recognize Trevino’s claim, she declared, is “indefensible.” For more on the case, see here; for an account of Sotomayor’s increasingly vocal opposition to the death penalty, see here.

The order list also included Azar v. Garza, a case involving a pregnant teenager (“Jane Doe”) who was initially denied access to an abortion while in detention for illegally entering the United States. After a federal appeals court ruled that Jane Doe could have the abortion, the Justice Department sought an injunction blocking the court order. But before the Justice Department could request the stay of the injunction from the Supreme Court, Jane Doe, with the assistance of her ACLU lawyers, secured her abortion. The Justice Department now asked the Court to discipline her  attorneys for their conduct in the case. The Court granted the petition for writ of certiorari and, in a per curiam opinion vacating and remanding the case, directed the District Court to dismiss the claim for injunctive relief as moot because of Jane Doe already having had the abortion. Coverage of the case can be found in Vox, the LA Times, and the The New York Times.


Koons v. United States

On June 4, the Court decided Koons v. United States, a case concerning whether defendants subject to statutory mandatory minimum sentences, but who received sentences below the minimum because they substantially assisted the government, are eligible for additional sentence reductions. In this case, the petitioner received a reduced sentence because he has helped the government, but he then requested an additional reduction when the minimum sentencing guidelines were amended.  Justice Alito delivered the unanimous opinion, in which the Court determined, based on a statutory analysis of the relevant federal law, that the petitioners were not eligible for sentence reductions. Justice Alito compared sentencing calculations to construction: “In constructing a house, a builder may begin by considering one design but may ultimately decide to use entirely different plans. While the first design would represent the starting point in the builder’s decision making process, the house finally built would not be “based on” that design. The same is true here.” Douglas Berman has a useful analysis of the case as SCOTUSblog in which he wonders whether “the press of other business” may have steered the Court toward a narrower approach to the issues of the case.

Hughes v. United States

The Court also released its opinion in Hughes v. United States, which considered whether those who entered a so-called “ Type-C” federal plea agreement are eligible for a sentence reduction under the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984 if the U.S. Sentencing Commission subsequently reduces the guidelines range for the charge on which the prisoner had entered his or her plea. The Court held 6-3 that a sentence imposed pursuant to a Type-C agreement is sufficiently based on the sentencing guidelines when the sentence range was part of the “framework” the district court relied on when reviewing  the adequacy of the plea agreement. Therefore, prisoners whose Type-C agreements are “based on” the sentencing guidelines are eligible for a sentence reduction in these situations. In Reason, Will Baude discusses the “predictive model” of precedent at issue in the case.

Lamar, Archer & Cofrin, LLP v. Appling

        The Court issues a unanimous ruling in Lamar, Archer & Cofrin, LLP  v. Appling, which addressed whether an individual’s verbal representations of a single asset should be considered a “statement respecting the debtor’s financial condition” under Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Code . In this case a debtor made verbal representations to a law firm about an expected tax return that he would use to pay his attorneys fees. When the tax return came, the debtor used it toward business expenses and never paid the law firm. The law firm subsequently sued the debtor to obtain a judgment, but once the judgment was entered the debtor filed for bankruptcy. The law firm argued that the debt should be non-dischargeable because it was obtained by fraud. The debtor countered that because the statement was not in writing he was not barred from discharging the debt via bankruptcy. Writing for a unanimous court, Justice Sotomayor sided with the law firm. The Jurist and JD Supra have more on the case.

Masterpiece Cakeshop v. CCRO

Also issued last week was one of the most anticipated cases of the term, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The Court ruled 7-2 in favor of Jack Phillips, the baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple due to his own religious beliefs, overturning the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s (CCRO) determination that he violated the state’s anti-discrimination law. The Court held that the CCRO was hostile to Phillips and his First Amendment argument during his hearing, thereby violating Phillips’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that although the rights of same-sex couples must be protected, “religious and philosophical objections to gay marriage are protected views and in some instances protected forms of expression.”

The decision was a narrow one, only applying to the specific facts of the case. As Vox points out, the Court only ruled that the CCRC had shown anti-religious bias in their ruling; they did not hold that religious objections can justify discrimination against the LGBTQ community in equal access to goods and services. “The outcome of cases like this in other circumstances must await further elaboration in the courts,” Kennedy noted in concluding his opinion, highlighting the narrowness of the ruling. He added, “these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs, and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.”

Justice Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Justice Thomas concurred in part of the opinion and the judgment. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissented.

Carzozo law professor Kate Shaw, writing for The New York Times, considers why Justices Breyer and Kagan joined the more conservative members of the Court in this case.

In her dissent, Justice Ginsburg insisted there is a clear difference between refusing to sell a cake with hateful rhetoric to anyone, and refusing to sell a cake to someone based on their identity, regardless of the messaging on the cake. Ginsburg also stated that she sees no reason why the CCRO’s disparaging statements “should be taken to overcome Phillips’ refusal to sell a wedding cake to Craig and Mullins.”

Justice Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, wrote an opinion  in which he emphasized that the Court has long held that expressive conduct (intended to be communicative and understood to be) is protected speech under the First Amendment. He noted the historical significance of wedding cakes, Phillips’ belief that he is an artist, and the symbolism that wedding cakes convey. All of this supports that Phillips’ cakes are protected expression and therefore not punishable under Colorado’s public accommodations law.

Check out CNN, The Washington Post,  The Washington Examiner,  The Denver Post, and  Slate for more on this blockbuster opinion.


As always, keep checking in with ISCOTUSnow to keep up to date on Supreme Court news!


ISCOTUS Fellows Elisabeth Heiber and Matthew Webber, Chicago-Kent Class of 2019, and Eva Dickey and Zoe Arthurson-McColl, Chicago-Kent Class of 2020, contributed to this post, which was edited by ISCOTUS Editorial Coordinator Anna Jirschele, Chicago-Kent Class of 2018 and  ISCOTUS co-director and Chicago-Kent faculty member Christopher Schmidt.

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