Justices Send Gay Rights and Voting Cases Back to Lower Courts

Barronelle Stutzman, left, a florist who was fined for denying service to a gay couple in 2013, in Bellevue, Wash., last year.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday said it would not consider sequels to its decisions this month on a baker who refused to serve a gay couple and on challenges to voting maps warped by politics.

In a pair of one-sentence orders, the court instead sent appeals in similar disputes back to lower courts for further proceedings, passing up opportunities to clarify its inconclusive rulings in some of the most closely watched cases this term.

One order told a lower court to reconsider the case of a florist in Washington State who had refused to create a floral arrangement for a same-sex wedding. The justices vacated a decision against the florist from the Washington Supreme Court and instructed it to take a fresh look at the dispute in light of this month’s ruling in a similar dispute involving the baker, Jack Phillips of Colorado.

The case, Arlene’s Flowers v. State of Washington, No. 17-108, started in 2013, when the florist, Barronelle Stutzman, turned down a request from a longtime customer, Robert Ingersoll, to provide flowers for his wedding to another man, Curt Freed. Ms. Stutzman said her religious principles did not allow her to do so.

She said she should not have to participate in same-sex weddings, which had been recognized in Washington the previous year.

“Since 2012, same-sex couples all over the state have been free to act on their beliefs about marriage,” Ms. Stutzman wrote, “but because I follow the Bible’s teaching that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, I am no longer free to act on my beliefs.”

The couple and the state both sued, and they won in the state courts.

The Washington Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Stutzman had violated a state anti-discrimination law by refusing to provide the floral arrangement. “This case is no more about access to flowers than civil rights cases in the 1960s were about access to sandwiches,” the court said, quoting from the plaintiffs’ brief.

The Supreme Court had put the Washington case on hold while it considered the one from Colorado. But it ended up deciding the Colorado case on narrow grounds specific to the dispute, saying the baker there had faced religious hostility from members of a state civil rights commission that had ruled against him.

There were no similar factors in the Washington case, Bob Ferguson, Washington’s attorney general, said in a statement. “The court specifically found that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission’s treatment of that case ‘has some elements of a clear and impermissible hostility’ toward the religious beliefs of the business owner,” Mr. Ferguson said. “We are confident Washington courts showed no such hostility.”

The meaning and sweep of the Colorado case are contested, but at least one court has already determined that it reaffirmed protections for gay men and lesbians who had been subject to discrimination by businesses open to the public. On June 7, the Arizona Court of Appeals ruled that a company that sells cards and decorations for weddings had violated a Phoenix anti-discrimination ordinance by refusing to supply custom goods to a same-sex union.

The ruling quoted at length from Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion in the Colorado case, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. “Our society has come to the recognition that gay persons and gay couples cannot be treated as social outcasts or as inferior in dignity and worth,” Justice Kennedy wrote in one of the quoted passages. “For that reason the laws and the Constitution can, and in some instances must, protect them in the exercise of their civil rights.”

The Supreme Court also passed up an opportunity on Monday to take another look at whether the Constitution bars extreme partisan gerrymandering, returning a case from North Carolina to a trial court there for a further examination of whether the challengers had suffered the sort of direct injury that would give them standing to sue.

The move followed two decisions last week that sidestepped the main issues in partisan gerrymandering cases from Wisconsin and Maryland.

The new case was an appeal from a decision in January by a three-judge panel of a Federal District Court in North Carolina. The ruling found that Republican legislators there had violated the Constitution by drawing the districts to hurt the electoral chances of Democratic candidates.

The decision was the first from a federal court to strike down a congressional map as a partisan gerrymander.

The judges noted that the legislator responsible for drawing the map had not disguised his intentions. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” said the legislator, Representative David Lewis, a Republican. “So I drew this map to help foster what I think is better for the country.”

The plan worked. In 2016, the court said, Republican congressional candidates won 53 percent of the statewide vote. But they won in 10 of the 13 congressional districts, or 77 percent of them.

The Supreme Court blocked the trial court’s ruling in January, and it took no action on an appeal from state officials while it considered the Wisconsin and Maryland cases.

After the court issued decisions in those cases on June 18, lawyers for the challengers filed supplemental briefs arguing that the new case, Rucho v. Common Cause, No. 17-1295, was not infected by the technical problems that stood in the way of decisions in the cases from Wisconsin and Washington.

The Supreme Court has ruled that racial gerrymandering can violate the Constitution. But it has never struck down a voting map as an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander.

In another development on Monday, the court said it would not hear an appeal from Brendan Dassey, a Wisconsin man whose case was featured in a Netflix documentary series, “Making a Murderer.” The series included excerpts from a videotaped confession from Mr. Dassey, who was 16 at the time and has significant mental limitations.

Prompted by investigators, Mr. Dassey confessed to rape and murder. Based almost solely on the confession, he was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

Mr. Dassey’s lawyers had urged the Supreme Court to use the case, Dassey v. Dittmann, No. 17-1172, as an opportunity to instruct lower courts about how to evaluate confessions obtained from juveniles and people with mental deficits. The court turned down the request without comment.

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