When Justice Antonin Scalia died on February 13, 2016, it was the death of more than just one man. For the first time in 20 years, the fairly reliable conservative tilt of the Supreme Court vanished. Now there were four generally liberal justices, three remaining consistently conservative justices, and Anthony Kennedy, a moderate who, though usually conservative, could move to the left, especially on social issues, as we saw in his eloquent opinion in support of same-sex marriage. If Kennedy voted with the conservatives, it would result in a tie, not a 5-4 decision. In case of a tied vote on the Supreme Court, the lower court ruling holds, and if there are conflicting rulings in different circuits, we continue with different law in different parts of the country.
Or the court could order a rehearing of a case once a new justice is seated.
The makeup of the Supreme Court is a glaring example of how much is at stake in presidential elections.
The political wheels started turning immediately. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell almost immediately announced that Scalia’s seat should be filled after “the American people” weigh in during the presidential election — Republicans always seem to forget that the American people have already weighed in twice by making Barack Obama president. This categorical rejection of any Obama nominee, no matter who, is unprecedented. Scalia’s seat was apparently sacred, and could only fairly be filled by a Republican appointee. McConnell does not seem to consider that the next president might also be a Democrat.
The change in the balance of the court was apparent in the first of two cases concerning reproductive health that were scheduled to be heard this month. (The second case, Zubik v. Burwell, will be argued on March 23.) At SCOTUSblog, Lyle Denniston analyzed the oral arguments in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt. It was always clear that the outcome would hinge on Justice Kennedy, and, before Scalia’s death, that in all likelihood the Texas law requiring abortion doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, and abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical clinic requirements, would be upheld. Continue reading