On Friday, the Supreme Court returned from its annual extended winter-break with its first conference of 2014. January at the Supreme Court marks a transition between the first "quarter" of its term to the second quarter.
In the first quarter, the Supreme Court is primarily hearing arguments in cases and deciding what cases to hear for the remainder of the term. With Friday's grant of review to eight cases for the April argument docket, the April docket will probably have more cases than the February docket. In the first quarter, opinions are issued in only the most clean cut cases. (Of the six opinions issued on cases argued in October, November, and December, all six were 9-0 decision with only two concurring opinions -- five from October and one from November).
In the second quarter, in addition to hearing arguments on the remaining cases, the Supreme Court begins to issue opinions in some of the semi-controversial cases and begins granting cases for the following term.
As far as cases from the fall that still have not been decided, there are several potentially big cases. From October, the Justices are still working on their opinions in McCutcheon (the challenge to the "aggregate" limits that individuals can contribute to all federal candidates combined) and Schuette (the challenge to the Michigan state constitution ban on affirmative action). From November, the case generating the most media interest is Galloway (the challenge to the opening prayer at town council meetings). Finally, from December, the big cases are probably EME Homer City Generation (a challenge to the EPA rules for calculating the interstate impact of pollution and regulating polluters when they contribute to pollution problems in near-by metropolitan areas) and Lozano (the second case in recent years to interpret a provision of the Hague Convention on Child Abduction, this time looking at whether the time for raising a claim is tolled if the abducting parent hides the child).
With new arguments starting on Monday, January is going to be a big docket with 12 arguments on five days. The biggest case is probably the Noel Canning case involving the rules governing recess appointments. This case was even bigger before the recent de facto change to the filibuster rules, but given that there will be times when the White House and Senate are controlled by different parties, this case will still be significant.
The other big case in January is McCullen v. Coakley. This case involves a challenge to a Massachusetts law creating a buffer zone around abortion clinics. This law creates a larger buffer zone than has previously been approved by the Supreme Court. While technically a First Amendment case, this decision will be the first implicating abortion rights since the 2007 decision upholding the federal ban on partial birth abortions. Given what is in the pipeline, it is unlikely that the Supreme Court will go another seven years without hearing a case on abortion.
Two cases that may become big are United States v. Quality Stores and Paroline v. United States. Quality Stores raises the question of whether severance packages are subject to Social Security taxes. Given the current cap on income subject to Social Security taxes, this case is not as big as it could be. If that cap were lifted as part of Social Security reform, this case could be huge. Paroline involves the calculation of restitution for victims of child pornography. The issue is the degree to which the victim has to show that her damages are caused by the individual defendant (typically someone who downloaded a handful of photographs as opposed to the actual producer).