Pro-life demonstrators stand outside the US Supreme Court following oral arguments in the case of McCullen v. Coakley.
Pro-life demonstrators stand outside the US Supreme Court following oral arguments in the case of McCullen v. Coakley. (Photo: SAUL LOEB / AFP / Getty Images)

Returning from its holiday recess, the U.S. Supreme Court jumped right into the limelight last week with a pair of high-profile arguments and a major decision — but with major cases still ahead to be heard and decided.

The justices wrestled with ­conflicting arguments over presidential power to make recess appointments — an issue they’ve never considered before — and revisited a more familiar controversy over protest-free buffer zones around abortion clinics.

The court ruled on one of the major cases pending from its ­session last October, limiting federal court jurisdiction over foreign disputes in Daimler­Chrysler v. Bauman. But it has yet to decide two other blockbusters from October: McCutcheon v. FEC on campaign finance and Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action.

Those decisions could come down when the court sits on Jan. 21 and Jan. 22. On those days, the court will also hear arguments in key cases that have gotten less attention on labor law, restitution for victims of child pornography, and a gun rights dispute.

Here are snapshots from the court’s first week of business in 2014:

A Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot no-protest zone around abortion clinics appeared in jeopardy as the justices questioned the sweep of restrictions on free speech.

With Justice Antonin Scalia leading the way, several justices voiced concern that the buffer zone was too large and too censorious to pass muster under the First Amendment. Under the 2007 law, only patients, staff, law enforcement and passersby can enter the zone while a clinic is open.

“This is a dead speech zone,” Scalia said at one point, repeatedly asserting that the state law restricts not just noisy protests or harassment, but quiet efforts by individuals to talk to incoming patients. “It’s a counseling case, not a protest case.” Chef Justice John Roberts Jr. asked no questions of either side — a rarity for him. In other recent First Amendment cases, Roberts has generally voted to protect controversial free speech.

In a case arising out of Argentina’s “dirty war,” the high court on Jan. 14 significantly limited the general jurisdiction of federal courts over injured victims’ lawsuits against corporations doing business in the United States.

The decision, according to legal observers on both sides of the case, means that a corporation, in effect, may be sued primarily where it is incorporated or in its principal place of business. For foreign corporations operating here, the decision likely means never.

The justices unanimously ruled in Daimler v. Bauman that Daimler, headquartered in Stuttgart, Germany, may not be sued in California, where its Mercedes-Benz USA subsidiary operates, by Argentine victims of alleged human rights violations in Argentina 30 years ago.

In a clash between the Constitution’s text and presidential tradition, the court struggled with which of the two should prevail in a challenge to President Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning is, surprisingly, the first time the high court has examined the meaning and scope of the recess-appointments clause in the Constitution. That clause states: “The President shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.”

During the arguments, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli and his two opponents — Jones Day’s Noel Francisco, counsel to Noel Canning, and Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher’s Miguel Estrada, representing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell and other Senate Republicans — offered competing interpretations of the language in the clause and of historical documents by the Constitution’s framers.

At the end of more than 90 minutes of argument Verrilli appeared to face an uphill battle in persuading the justices to reverse a broad ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit limiting a president’s power.

Contact Tony Mauro at tmauro@alm.com and Marcia Coyle at mcoyle@alm.com.