All eyes are on the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

(Including mine: You'll find my predictions on what the health care ruling will mean for small businesses here.)

It's already been a heck of a term, however, with important decisions in many different areas of law.

Here's a review of some of the court's other 2012 rulings, and how they might affect the lives and livelihoods of entrepreneurs. 

The FCC Indecency Decision

The Supreme Court threw out fines against broadcasters for "fleeting" moments of swearing or nudity on television programs. Among the examples cited were a 2002 episode of NYPD Blue that included a brief view of a naked woman from the back, and a January 2003 award show in which lead singer Bono of the group U2 happily exclaimed that receiving an award was, "really, really f---ing brilliant."

What it might mean for entrepreneurs:
Two things, probably. First, the court threw out the fines because it said the FCC's TV regulations were too vague to let broadcasters know ahead of time what would be over the line. Anything from the court that encourages the government to make its rules clearer is probably good for entrepreneurs.

Second, the court upheld the regulations, so we'll continue with a different sets of obscenity rules for broadcast television, basic cable, and premium cable television. For business players in the entertainment industry, it means the continuation of a segmented television market. 

GPS Tracking

Reviewing the case of a convicted drug dealer whose car police had tracked for 28 days with a GPS device, the court warned authorities to apply for warrants before using that kind of tactic.

This case was a rarity for this court: a unanimous decision. The justices voted 9-0 to restrict how police can use GPS devices to track suspected criminals. (Although it wasn't all comity; the justices differed 5-4 on their reasoning and the reach of the decision.)

What it might mean for entrepreneurs:
This case has some significant implications for entrepreneurs. It restricted the police's ability to use a modern surveillance tactic, thus creating a new form of "customer pain" for law enforcement that smart entrepreneurs will likely rush to solve. Meanwhile, it's a reminder that we're in the early stages of a brave new world of privacy in a digital age.

Corporate Campaign Finance

The court struck down a Montana law that limited the ability of corporations to spend money influencing state elections. This decision probably shouldn't have been a surprise, because it basically said that the court's 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, upholding the right of corporations to spend money in federal elections, applies to the states as well. Still, it was a 5-4 decision. Looks as if we'll be seeing a lot more of those kinds of close calls in the future.

What it might mean for entrepreneurs:
The obvious answer is that their corporations can spend money to support the candidates of their choice in elections all around the country. More broadly, the past two years have brought significant change in how campaigns are financed in general. That means we could see more money for entrepreneurs working in the political world, and a whole new set of customer problems that savvy entrepreneurs might race to remedy.


The court struck down three out of four major provisions in a far-reaching Arizona immigration law. Justice Anthony Kennedy was the deciding vote in throwing out A) a requirement that police try to determine the immigration status of people they stop under suspicion of even minor crimes; B) a law that made it a crime for an illegal immigrant to seek employment; and C) a law that let police arrest a person without a warrant if they believed the person may have committed a crime that could lead to deportation.

The court upheld the last part of the Arizona law, however, the so-called "papers please" provision that instructs police to check immigration status when they detain people.

What it might mean for entrepreneurs:
Immigration policy is one of the country's most divisive issues right now, and the court's ruling underscores how important the debate remains. By throwing out three of the four provisions, the court likely created new areas of customer pain in law enforcement, in the lives of immigrants looking to gain a legal foothold in the United States, and for just about anyone else who wants to influence the debate.

Looking Ahead

Not enough drama for you? No worries; we should start to learn Thursday morning, which I've taken to calling Health Care Decision Day, how the court's biggest ruling of the term will affect 18 percent of the U.S. GDP.

And if that's not enough, next year's term is already starting to shape up. Monday, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Comcast Corp.'s appeal of a lower court's decision that allowed television watchers in Philadelphia to sue it in a class action for allegedly overcharging for service and acting as a monopoly.

Published on: Jun 26, 2012
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