Before it adjourned for the summer in late June, the Supreme Court issued a series of important decisions, or non-decisions, on affirmative action, immigration, abortion, and other subjects. As with the Court’s actions since last October, and particularly since the death of Justice Scalia in February, the most significant message sent by these developments is this: the elections this November will be absolutely critical to the future of the Court and to all our rights and liberties.
Start with immigration. The Court split 4-4 on the challenge brought by Texas and other states to the president’s executive actions that would have kept families together by shielding undocumented parents of U.S. citizens from deportation and, in total, helped more than 4 million people across the country. The result of the tie vote is that the lower court decision stands without any opinion by the Court, so that a nationwide injunction by a single Texas federal judge against the president’s orders remains in effect. Although the Court doesn’t reveal who voted how in 4-4 splits, it’s almost certain that the four votes against the orders came from Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito and Thomas, joined by Justice Kennedy.
The Court was also split 4-4 in another important case in June, concerning whether Indian tribal courts can rule in civil cases (this one involving an assault) against non-tribe members who do business on Indian land. Altogether, the Court issued 4-4 non-decisions in five cases this term, the most in more than 30 years - a direct result of Republican Senators’ unprecedented blockade of the Garland nomination.
In several other important cases in June, Justice Kennedy sided with the Court’s moderates and produced positive decisions. This included a decision striking down an extremely restrictive Texas law that seriously and improperly limited women’s access to abortion by imposing draconian requirements on abortion clinics, as well as a decision approving a University of Texas plan to increase diversity on campus through affirmative action in admissions.
So does this mean that we have nothing to fear even if the Republican blockade of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the vacant seat on the Court succeeds and a President Trump places a right-wing conservative on the Court, because Kennedy is voting with the Court’s four moderates? Absolutely not!
First, the immigration non-decision itself shows that Kennedy - the author of Citizens United and part of the 5-4 majorities in Shelby County and Hobby Lobby and so many other cases damaging our democracy and our rights - unfortunately sides all too often with the Court’s far right wing. That was also shown earlier this term when an apparent 4-4 deadlock forced the Court to essentially punt in the Zubik case, leaving the important question of access to contraceptives and employer religious questions in limbo until the Court again has nine members. Whether that ninth seat is filled by President Obama (or by President Clinton if the Republican blockade continues) or by a President Trump is critical.
In addition, the age of the current justices makes clear that there will likely be additional vacancies during the first term of the next president. Three justices will be above 80 during that time, older than the average retirement age for justices. The president who fills these vacancies could easily tip the balance of the Court, not just on the issues the Court dealt with in June, but also on the environment, money and politics, LGBT rights, voting rights, access to justice, protection from government abuse, and many more. And the answer to whether we have a Senate that is willing to do its job and actually hold hearings and vote on nominees, unlike the current Republican Senate that has refused to even hold a hearing for Judge Garland after more than 100 days, will be crucial as well. Election Day 2016 truly is judgment day for the Court and for all of our rights and liberties.