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2 Big Decisions From The Supreme Court


There were two major decisions from the Supreme Court today. The justices have thrown out a lower court order that allowed an undocumented immigrant teenager in U.S. custody to obtain an abortion last year. And they have ruled in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is with me now.

Good morning, Nina.


KING: Let's start with this case in Colorado. What was it all about?

TOTENBERG: There was a gay couple who went to the - a bakery owned by Jack Phillips. And they asked - they wanted to have their wedding cake made by him. He was a quite famous - in the state - cake artist. And when he realized that they were gay, he said he refused to make the cake based on his religious convictions. And they made a complaint to the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in their favor. And the case went all the way through the courts up to the Supreme Court. Jack Phillips claimed that he had both a First Amendment right of free expression to not express and endorse a kind of wedding that he found offensive under his religious beliefs. And the couple said, look, we've got a right to the same services and to buy the same products as everybody else in the state under the state's law.

And today, the court, by a 7-2 vote, ruled in favor of Jack Phillips, but on the narrowest of grounds. This is a ticket essentially for this train only. Justice Kennedy, writing for the court - for the seven justices in the majority - said he didn't get a neutral hearing because some of the commissioners on the state Civil Rights Commission expressed hostility towards religion, and they had treated other cases differently, he said. Therefore, he wins in this case. But in the future, in a sort of a plea for tolerance, he said these cases have to be resolved - in the context of recognizing that these disputes must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs and without subjecting gay persons to indignities when they see goods and services in an open market. So essentially, they dodged a major ruling in this case.

KING: So does that mean that this doesn't have a huge impact on the rights of same-sex couples across the country as we go forward?

TOTENBERG: I think in states, certainly, that have anti-discrimination provisions involving same-sex couples, this - the writing in this case provides a road map for how to do it and make sure that the gay couples get - can buy goods and services just like everybody else. For states where there is no such law, I think it's an open constitutional question. And it may still be an open constitutional question in states that have laws like this one. What Justice Kennedy seems to write in this case is that if there is no hostility towards religion - overt hostility - and he perceived that there was - and if you don't rule that people - in favor of bakers who don't want to put an anti-gay message on their cake, but for Jack Phillips - if you don't have different rulings, then you can do this.

KING: There was another case that dealt with involving the rights of an undocumented teenage girl who requested an abortion. She was in U.S. custody at the time. What did the court say about her case?

TOTENBERG: They said it's dead because she already had the abortion.


TOTENBERG: And it said nothing about the future. There was no major ruling in this case. So what the court did - this was a big deal because the government claimed that this young woman's lawyers had done a runaround them in an unethical way, and they wanted sanctions. And they wanted the case - the ruling dismissed by - the lower court ruling in her favor dismissed because she had already gotten the abortion, and the case is dead.

Well, the court did not give the sanctions that the government sought. It said the facts are in dispute in this case; it's not worth going over them a million times. And aggressive advocacy and misunderstandings in a context like this are not necessarily misconduct. So it did not impose the sanctions, but it did vacate the lower court's decision to mean - essentially, it means nothing. It's as if it had never happened.

KING: NPR - excuse me. Nina Totenberg is NPR's legal affairs correspondent. Thank you, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.