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Hanna: Supreme Court Recap

At the start of each semester, I tell my students that the Supreme Court has enormous power, from defining our family, to how we live and learn, work and worship, whom we can love, and how we can die.

This term proves that more than any other in recent years.

And for Vermonters, this term was particularly bittersweet.

Perhaps the most important case was the one that struck down Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act, providing full federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in our state. This case impacts a great many Vermonters, both in their hearts and in countless tangible ways.

Another case to rejoice was the Court’s unanimous decision to disallow companies from patenting our genes. The decision was a major blow to a company that makes a test for gene mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Vermont women will now have greater access to tests to discover their potential vulnerability to those types of cancer.

And because our state has a long tradition of valuing privacy, the Court’s decision that police need a warrant before using a dog to sniff out your front porch was welcomed by many.

But there were also some cases that have caused many Vermonters great concern. The Court’s decision to require farmers to pay each time they use round-up ready soy beans meant a big win for Monsanto and a big loss for small farmers and food advocates who already feel bullied by the corporate giant.

And for those Vermonters concerned about government surveillance in light of the revelations by Edward Snowden, it is important to note that earlier this year, the Court dismissed a case brought by journalists and human rights activists challenging the government’s global wiretapping program. Because the petitioners couldn’t prove that they had actually been secretly wiretapped, they lacked standing to challenge the law, making it very hard to get these programs struck down.

Remember that the Court also dismissed California’s Proposition 8 case under the same rationale – that those challenging the law didn’t have standing because they couldn’t prove they were actually harmed either.

This of course proves the second thing I tell my students – that standing is the most important concept a lawyer must master. They used to roll their eyes because it sounds so boring. But after this term, no longer.

Finally, even though Vermont is not subject to Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the Court’s decision striking it down should make us anxious as to whether all Americans will be able to exercise the right to vote without obstruction from local and state governments.

What struck me most about this term is how much power we’ve vested in the Justices to solve the problems of an ever-changing world. We accept their decisions, whether we like them or not. That is the enduring power of the rule of law, for better or worse.

The late Cheryl Hanna was a professor at Vermont Law School in Royalton.
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