The Supreme Court this month could release decisions on issues related to immigration, free speech and religious liberty, all of which have the potential to portend the direction of the high court for years to come on these issues.
Justice Neil Gorsuch will not have a say in every opinion still to come from the Supreme Court, but the full nine-justice bench could prove critical in a number of cases. Here are some of the key decisions still to come from the Supreme Court:
Litigation over President Trump's travel ban is worming its way through federal appellate courts, but several other looming decisions from the Supreme Court are also poised to affect the new administration's policies.
: Shortly after Trump's victory last year, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about whether illegal immigrants, including those with criminal records, are entitled to bond hearings with the possibility of release.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that illegal immigrants were entitled to these hearings, but the high court's left- and right-leaning wings wrestled with the question over whether the class action case before them dealt with a constitutionality question or statutory interpretation.
Alejandro Rodriguez, the named plaintiff, entered the country as an infant and was a lawful permanent resident in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security initiated deportation proceedings against Rodriguez after his conviction for drug possession and an earlier conviction for joyriding. Along the way, DHS detained Rodriguez for three years.
Rodriguez's attorney wanted the Supreme Court to decide illegal immigrants have a right to bond hearings, but the high court's conservatives challenged Rodriguez's counsel. Chief Justice John Roberts pointed out that the court does not have a role in writing statutes, while Justice Elena Kagan proffered a competing note that the court did not need to create a new statute if it chooses to introduce a constitutional limit.
The resolution of this case could go a long way toward determining the level of authority the various branches of the federal government have in writing and implementing immigration law.
: Soon after President Trump took office and repeated his promise to build a wall at the nation's southern border, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a case about whether and to what degree non-citizens should receive constitutional protections at U.S. borders.
Jesus Hernandez, an unarmed Mexican teenager, died after being shot across the border by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. In adjudicating Hernandez v. Mesa, the high court will grapple with questions about whether the agent is entitled to qualified immunity and whether Hernandez's parents can sue the agent.
Lawyers for Hernandez argued that the Supreme Court should rule based on the specifics of this individual case. But the high court's conservatives, namely Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, pressed the attorney for answers about what kind of rule the court could apply that could also be employed in future cases.
Justice Stephen Breyer, an appointee of President Bill Clinton, struck a different tone and told Hernandez's counsel, "You have a very sympathetic case."
Gorsuch was not on the bench during arguments of this case, so it's possible the Supreme Court's decision could come down to Justice Anthony Kennedy. During arguments, Kennedy noted that the issue involved "one of the most sensitive areas of foreign affairs" and said, "the political branches ought to discuss it with Mexico."
Regardless of whether construction of Trump's proposed border wall ever moves forward, the Supreme Court's resolution of this case could have ramifications for how immigration enforcement officers do their jobs at the border.
: As a candidate for the nation's highest office, Trump challenged the idea that children of illegal immigrant parents have birthright citizenship. In Maslenjak v. United States, the Supreme Court is looking to determine precisely what factors can cost a naturalized American his or her U.S. citizenship.
During oral arguments at the Supreme Court last month, Trump's Justice Department argued that ignoring speeding laws or misleading people about your body weight could lead to prosecutions that would lead to the removal of an American's citizenship. Justices on both sides of the high court's ideological divide grew perplexed with the Justice Department's arguments, and Roberts even exclaimed, "Oh, come on."
While it's always hard to predict how the court will rule, the Supreme Court looks poised to curb the Trump administration's approach to removing citizenship from naturalized Americans.
Free speech and expression
Two cases testing the boundaries of the First Amendment's protections for offensive speech and offensive speakers remain unresolved. The outcomes of both cases could have a far-reaching impact on trademarks and the Internet.
: The U.S. Patent and Trade Office denied a trademark to Simon Tam's Asian-American rock band "The Slants." The Supreme Court is looking to determine whether enforcement of the Lanham Act's disparagement provision, which guides trademark registration, violates the First Amendment.
The justices did not offer hints about how they might decide the case during arguments. But the band appeared to have allies across the bench's ideological divide. Kagan, Roberts, and Alito each pressed the then-Obama administration deputy solicitor general about the Patent and Trade Office's decision to block trademark registration of the band's name. Kagan questioned whether the Obama administration's decision amounted to viewpoint discrimination.
Alito also rigorously questioned Tam's lawyer, who argued that the commercial and noncommercial speech elements of a trademark were "inextricably intertwined." Alito subsequently asked incredulously about how the high court could then separate them when deciding the case.
However the Supreme Court decides the case could be of particular interest to sports fans from Washington, D.C. The controversy at issue in Lee v. Tam could affect another fight over the trademark of the Washington Redskins' nickname. A victory for The Slants could boost the Redskins' chances, but a defeat for the band would not necessarily mean the demise of the team's nickname either.
The Supreme Court's decision, in this case, could foreshadow how it could handle the issue of the Redskins trademark, should that issue eventually arrive on the high court's docket.
: The Supreme Court's decision, in this case, could decide whether people who sexually abuse children can use Facebook and other social media.
Lester Packingham was convicted of taking "indecent liberties" with a minor and later posted messages on Facebook praising God for helping him avoid a traffic ticket. Packingham was arrested for violating a North Carolina law that prevents the use of commercial social networking sites by sex offenders.
The state argued that Packingham had "no legal right to access" the social networking sites even absent the North Carolina law, and contended that Packingham's less-restrictive alternatives would not protect children. Packingham's attorneys countered that the First Amendment protects Packingham and that the North Carolina law was "overbroad."
During oral arguments, each of the eight justices probed attorneys for both sides with lengthy questions, with the exception of Justice Clarence Thomas. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg questioned Packingham's representation about other rights restricted from ex-felons, while Roberts noted the lack of history for this sort of case. Kennedy questioned North Carolina's counsel about whether it could block a person from entering the public square, while Kagan noted that the state's action would prevent offenders from viewing the president's Twitter account.
The justices did not give any definitive hints about how they may precisely rule in this case, but the high court's left-leaning bloc may be predisposed to be sympathetic to the free speech claims at issue in the case.
: This case brought the first test of religious liberty since the Supreme Court returned to its full complement of nine justices with the addition of Gorsuch.
Many legal conservatives hoped Gorsuch would be seated on the bench in time to hear the case since it could split the justices nearly evenly along ideological lines. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case before the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, who Gorsuch replaced, but waited months to actually hear the case.
The Trinity Lutheran case involves the question of whether Missouri violated the U.S. Constitution in its action preventing a church-operated daycare and preschool from a state program that provides funding to nonprofits to resurface playgrounds. Missouri's Constitution includes a provision that prevents public funds from directly or indirectly assisting any church, sect, or religion.
Discussion of the controversial provision prompted tempers to flare during the case's oral arguments. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that nearly 40 states had provisions in their state constitutions akin to Missouri's, and she praised the provision as part of the nation's tradition of not funding religious institutions.
Alito subsequently called out Sotomayor by name and asked Trinity Lutheran's counsel whether he agreed with Sotomayor's representation of the Missouri provision as part of an "admirable tradition." This provided Trinity Lutheran's counsel the opportunity to talk about the "anti-Catholic bigotry" in the roots of the provision.
The state's argument attracted skeptical questions from Justices Kagan and Breyer, which may signal that the case may not be as evenly divided as some had expected.
While Gorsuch will have a say in the outcome of Trinity Lutheran, the Supreme Court will look to settle many of the other cases it has heard this term with just eight justices. The Supreme Court could conceivably order previously argued cases to be reargued next term so that Gorsuch could cast a decisive vote, as Bloomberg BNA noted. If the justices elect not to rehear some of the cases it has yet to resolve, it may choose to provide narrower rulings in various eight-justice opinions.