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Policy: Law

How the Supreme Court's upcoming rulings will affect Obama, unions and you

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Who says nothing meaningful gets done on Capitol Hill these days?

With Congress' partisan bickering all but ensuring no significant legislation will clear the politically divided body this election year, across the street the Supreme Court is finishing up a busy year that will affect the president's authority as well as major consumer and worker issues.

The justices already struck down the overall limits on the amount that wealthy donors can contribute to political campaigns in McCutcheon v. the Federal Election Commission, one of the high court's most important rulings in years.

And with just two weeks left in the 2013-14 session, the high court has yet to rule on several landmark cases that could limit the scope of President Obama's health care reforms, scale back the president's authority to make appointments -- and in the process strike a blow to labor unions -- and curb privacy rights in a digital age.

Here’s what’s at stake:

Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius

The two cases, argued jointly, are probably the most anticipated of the current session and could kill a major provision of Obamacare.

The debate centers on whether businesses can opt out of an Affordable Care Act provision that requires they provide coverage of birth control for employees at no extra charge.

Hobby Lobby, a chain of craft stores, and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp., a small furniture manufacturer, say forcing them to insure certain forms of contraception violates their First Amendment right of freedom of religion.

The Christian families who separately own the companies also say they’re protected under a 1993 federal law designed to prevent other laws that place a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion. But the government argues the law was meant to protect people — not for-profit entities.

Critics fear a ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby would be a slippery slope to discrimination, saying a business could then use religion as grounds to refuse health insurance to gay employees or others.

The three liberal-leaning female justices on the high court expressed concern that denying female employees access to even some contraceptives is unfair and threatens their health. But several of the five conservative-leaning justices appeared reluctant to accept that argument.

National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning

This dispute is between Republicans and the White House over whether President Obama exceeded his authority when appointing three members to the National Labor Relations Board during a congressional recess in 2012.

If the high court rules against the labor board, which resolves complaints of unfair labor practices and conducts elections for union representation, NRLB decisions made by the recess-appointed members could be deemed invalid. And with many of the rulings favoring unions, the decision could have a huge impact on organized labor.

The case is among several this term dealing with unions, with others poised to effect how organized labor recruits and keeps members.

Presidents can circumvent required Senate approval of nominations if the chamber is on recess, a move Obama deemed necessary because of repeated Republican blocks of his nominations to the NLRB.

At issue is the definition of “recess.” The administration argues a recess applies to breaks between annual sessions as well as time off Congress takes within the year. But Republicans say the term should only apply to breaks between official sessions of Congress.

Riley v. California; U.S. v. Wurie

This pair of cases has re-examined — and is poised to possibly expand — the power of the police to mine for evidence.

The debate centers on whether police need a warrant to search the cellphones of people they arrest, pitting law enforcement and the federal government against privacy advocates.

In each of the two cases, criminal defendants were convicted and sentenced to prison partly because police obtained evidence from their cellphones after a warrantless search.

Justice Elena Kagan worries that those searches violate fundamental privacy rights because “people carry their entire lives in their cellphones.”

And with 90 percent of adult Americans owning a cellphone, critics worry police could trump up dubious arrest charges on suspects to access their phones.

But police and the government argue cellphones searches pose little legal difference than police searching a person’s wallet at the time of an arrest, which they have the authority to do.

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