Key decisions reached as Supreme Court session ends

The Supreme Court has reached what is expected to be the final day of its annual term.

In the past two weeks the justices have handed down a series of decisions that came as defeats to President Obama and victories for foes of abortion.

Earlier this year, the court bolstered the rights of big campaign donors and upheld Christian prayers at public meetings.

The justices try to finish their work by the end of June. The annual rush this time of year means many of their hardest cases are decided in the last two weeks of the month -- often by 5-4 splits.

Here are the highlights:

Contraceptives and Religious Liberty

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt a setback to President Obama’s healthcare law and ruled that Christian business owners with religious objections to certain forms of birth control may refuse to provide their employees with insurance coverage for contraceptives.

In a major 5-4 ruling on religious freedom, the justices decided the religious rights of these company owners trump the rights of female employees to receive the full contraceptive coverage promised by the law.

The decision, written by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., is a victory for social conservatives. It also could open the door for other businesses to claim a religious exemption from laws, including anti-discrimination measures that protect gays and lesbians.

(Sebelius vs. Hobby Lobby Stores)

Photo: Under the Affordable Care Act, employees are guaranteed coverage for emergency contraception, such as Plan B. Credit: Teva Women’s Health / Associated Press

Abortion Buffer Zones and Free Speech

The Supreme Court has rejected Massachusetts’ effort to enforce a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics.

The narrowly written 9-0 decision is a free-speech victory for opponents of abortion. It upholds the rights of “sidewalk counselors” who wish to speak to young pregnant women to persuade them against having an abortion.

The ruling is a setback for women’s health clinics that have tried to prevent protesters from blocking their doors. The state Legislature adopted a broader buffer zone in 2007 in response to reports of protesters pushing and shoving near the door of a Planned Parenthood clinic in Boston.

(McCullen vs. Coakley)

Photo: A woman demonstrates outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in San Antonio, Texas. Credit: Eric Gay / Associated Press

Public Employee Unions and Free Speech

The Supreme Court dealt a setback to the union movement, ruling that personal home-care employees cannot be forced to pay dues to a union.

In a 5-4 ruling written Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court said these employees, some of whom care for their disabled children at home, have a constitutional right not to support a union they oppose.

The decision is a victory for the National Right to Work Foundation, which took up the cause of several mothers who objected to paying union fees. It is a defeat for Service Employees International Union and Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn.

Beginning in 2003, Illinois officials agreed to deem these home-care workers “public employees” because they are paid with Medicaid funds to care for disabled adults. That cleared the way for the SEIU to organize them into a union.

Union officials say they have won higher wages and better benefits for 20,000 of these home-care assistants in Illinois. But anti-union lawyers sued the state, arguing these private assistants are not truly public employees and should not be compelled to pay fees to a union.

(Harris vs. Quinn)

Photo: The Illinois Legislature passed a bill in 2003 recognizing home healthcare workers as public employees. Credit: Seth Perlman / Associated Press

Smartphones and Police Searches

Police may not search the smartphones of people who are put under arrest unless they have a warrant, the Supreme Court ruled, a unanimous and surprising victory for privacy advocates.

The justices, ruling in cases from California and Massachusetts, said the 4th Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches and seizures” prevents a police officer from examining a cellphone found on or near a person who is arrested.

Cellphones differ from other objects a person might carry, such as wallets, purses and notepads. Police have been allowed to search those during an arrest.

Because technologically sophisticated phones may hold huge amounts of personal data, they may not be searched without a warrant from a magistrate, the justices said.

(Riley vs. California)

Photo: A Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy brings a suspect to the police station after his arrest. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

TV Streaming and Broadcast Licenses

The Supreme Court ruled that Aereo, the upstart television streaming service that rents tiny antennas to customers, violated copyright laws by resending broadcast signals without paying licensing fees.

In a 6-3 decision, justices said the law forbids unlicensed companies to “transmit” copyrighted shows to the viewing public. Aereo argued, unsuccessfully, that it was transmitting signals to individual customers through the use of tiny rented antennas.

The decision is a major victory for TV broadcasters, who depend increasingly on licensing revenues from cable and satellite services.

(ABC vs. Aereo)

Photo: Aereo.com allows users to watch live TV online, a service that could challenge traditional network broadcasters. Credit: Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Recess Appointments and Presidential Power

The Supreme Court has ruled President Obama exceeded his power under the Constitution by filling federal positions when the Senate was on a brief break.

But the narrow ruling also preserved the president’s power to make recess appointments in general.

While the president is authorized to fill “vacancies” while the Senate is on “recess,” the justices decided in a 9-0 ruling that the Senate was not on a true recess in January 2012 when Obama filled three seats on the National Labor Relations Board.

(NLRB vs. Noel Canning)

Photo: President Obama made the recess appointments in 2012, after Senate Republicans refused to confirm his nominees. Credit: Charles Dharapak / Associated Press

False Statements and Free Speech

Can Ohio and 15 other states enforce laws that forbid “false statements” about candidates?

The challengers, a group of abortion opponents, had used billboards to criticize an Ohio Democrat in a way that he maintained was false.

The justices decided the case on narrow procedural grounds and stopped short of ruling on the challengers’ free-speech claim.

(Susan B. Anthony List vs. Driehaus)

Photo: Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser, left, and Ohio Democrat Steve Driehaus. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images and David Kohl / Associated Press

Greenhouse Gases and Power Plants

The Supreme Court in a split decision upheld most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules designed to limit greenhouse gases from power plants.

The outcome is likely to be welcomed by environmentalists because it confirms the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority to restrict greenhouse gases.

The justices handed down two separate rulings in a dispute over permits for new or modified power plants and factories.

In a 7-2 vote, the justices agreed the Environmental Protection Agency could force major polluters to use new and better technology to limit their emissions of carbon dioxide.

“These are major polluting facilities, such as factories and coal-fired power plants,” said Justice Antonin Scalia, and they are already subject to EPA restrictions. Now, those restrictions can include limits on greenhouse gases, he said.

But in a separate 5-4 vote, the court struck down an EPA regulation that could have extended the required greenhouse gas permits to millions of other facilities. Scalia said EPA had stretched the law to cover new facilities that were not major polluters.

While most of the court’s opinion dealt with the rejected permitting rules, the court said EPA had won more than it had lost.

“It bears mentioning that EPA is getting almost everything it wanted in this case,” Scalia said in the courtroom.

(Utility Air Regulatory Group vs. EPA)

Photo: The coal-fired Hunter Power Plant stands just south of Castle Dale, Utah. Credit: Al Hartmann / The Salt Lake Tribune