By Robert Barnes,
The Supreme Court accepted more than a dozen new cases Friday, mostly representing business concerns, that are likely to complete a docket far less controversial than what the justices have faced in recent years.
The justices will consider whether companies can protect themselves against costly class-action suits by forcing employees to settle differences through individual arbitration. And it will decide how challengers to an important Obama administration environmental regulation may proceed in court.
But the court did not announce action on a requested review of Alabama’s death-penalty process or Texas’s challenge of a lower-court ruling striking down the state’s voter-identification law. The court could still hear the cases, but it seems more likely those challenges will be heard in the term that starts in October.
By then, the court is likely to be at full strength. It has been shorthanded since Justice Antonin Scalia died last February, and the Republican-controlled Senate refused to act on President Obama’s nominee, Judge Merrick Garland.
The eight-member court has appeared to put aside more controversial cases where it might deadlock. President-elect Donald Trump has said he will offer a nominee within two weeks of taking office, but even with a speedy confirmation process that person might not be on the court before it concludes oral arguments in April.
The arbitration issue affects millions of workers who have signed employment agreements in which they waive rights to bring class-action lawsuits over workplace issues and wage disputes, in favor of arbitration.
Businesses favor such resolution, saying it is quicker and less costly than class-action litigation. The National Labor Relations Board says such agreements conflict with laws that give workers the right to band together.
Lower courts are split on the issue. The Supreme Court agreed to consider three cases that raise the issue, two of them in which judges said the arbitration agreements cannot be enforced and another where a court agreed with the company.
The court also accepted a dispute over a 2015 environmental rule from the Obama administration regarding what qualifies as “water of the United States” under the Clean Water Act.
But the court will not be considering the rule’s merits. It will be settling a dispute about the proper court in which the challenges must be filed.
“What should be a straightforward gatekeeping provision has in this and other cases generated widespread judicial disagreement, caused needless delay, and wasted valuable resources for no substantive purpose,” said a brief filed by the National Association of Manufacturers.
In other cases accepted Friday, the court will hear a dispute about how quickly “biosimilars” — copies of medicines based on living organisms — can get to market. And it will decide whether venture capitalist Charles Kokesh has to return to the Securities and Exchange Commission nearly $35 million he paid to himself and other advisers.
Kokesh contends the penalty is not within a five-year statute of limitations.