With the bang of a gavel at 10 sharp this morning, the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court will return to the bench to begin oral arguments for the 2011-'12 term. For their first week back, the justices have slated cases to resolve claims by health care providers, death row inmates and religious school teachers.
The term’s first oral argument will concern the perpetually cash-strapped state of California's efforts to save some money by altering MedCal, its state analog to the federal Medicaid program. In Douglas v. Independent Living Center, California seeks to prevent health care providers from challenging the state's laws reducing payments to doctors, hospitals, pharmacists and others as reimbursement for their services to poor and disabled patients.
The health care providers succeeded in the lower appeals court by arguing that California's MedCal reforms, which come at the expense of the providers' bottom lines, conflict with Medicaid in an unconstitutional affront to the supremacy of federal law over state law. Medicaid, however, takes form through contractual cooperation between the states and the federal government. Accordingly, the Obama administration and thirty-one states have joined California in asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court's judgment under the theory that Congress never intended to allow private parties to stop state governments from fulfilling their Medicaid obligations in ways the federal government sees fit.
On Tuesday morning, the justices will take up the case of Cory Maples, an Alabama inmate whom state and federal courts have barred from challenging his death sentence simply because his lawyers missed a filing deadline through no fault of his own. In 1997, Maples was sentenced to death for murder, but starting in 2001 he petitioned to challenge his death sentence with the help of two young lawyers at a major New York law firm who agreed to take his case pro bono. But by the time the trial court in 2003 denied his petition, his attorneys had left their law firm, prompting the firm's mailroom to send back the court's unopened notice with "Return to Sender -- Left Firm" written on the envelope. The court took no further steps upon receiving the returned notice, and Maples' opportunity to appeal the trial court's decision lapsed, leaving his death sentence intact with no possibility of further relief from Alabama state courts without federal intervention. With the district and appeals courts refusing to act, the Supreme Court is Maples' last hope to have his constitutional claims heard.
In addition to the Maples case and another one on ineffective assistance of counsel Tuesday morning, the Court will also hear arguments in Howes v. Fields, which asks whether a prisoner must be read his Miranda rights when he is questioned in isolation from other inmates about events occurring outside the prison. The Court's Miranda rule decisions over the last several terms prompted a prominent law professor to accuse the Court of committing a "stealth overruling" of its landmark 1966 opinion requiring police officers to inform criminal suspects of their constitutional rights once the suspects are in police custody.
The Court will switch gears again on Wednesday to hear what some have billed as the biggest religion case in decades. In Hosanna-Tabor Church v. EEOC, the justices will be asked for the first time to determine the limits of the "ministerial exception," which prevents the federal government from pursuing most employment discrimination claims against religious organizations by employees performing religious functions.
Specifically at issue in Hosanna-Tabor is whether fourth grade teacher Cheryl Perich is barred by the First Amendment's religion clauses from bringing disability discrimination and retaliation claims against her former employer, Hosanna-Tabor, a Lutheran grade school. The Lutheran Church deems its schoolteachers "commissioned ministers," and Perich obtained such a "call" when she started there in 2000. For four years she taught secular and religious classes at Hosanna-Tabor, but after she was diagnosed with narcolepsy, the school asked her to resign. Cleared by her doctors to return to work, Perich refused to resign and threatened to file suit with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In response, the Hosanna-Tabor congregation rescinded Perich's "call," prompting her to file a claim with the EEOC.
Lower courts have long grappled with the scope of the ministerial exception without any Supreme Court guidance. Indeed, this case's history reflects some of the uncertainly surrounding the doctrine: The district court in Hosanna-Tabor held for the school, citing Perich's teaching religious classes as triggering application of the ministerial exception, but the appeals court reversed, emphasizing instead Perich's primarily secular class schedule. By weighing in this week, the justices will give a hint of how much latitude the Court will ultimately give the federal government in policing the hiring and firing decisions made by this country's religious organizations.
The Huffington Post will be present in the courtroom this week to report on oral arguments and other developments at the Court.
Earlier on HuffPost: