Powerful Sotomayor Dissent Shows Dangers of Supreme Court Ruling on Police Searches

Last Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that evidence found by police officers even after they stop someone illegally can still be used if the searches happen after the officers learn of an unrelated outstanding arrest warrant. In a particularly powerful dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor explained the dangers of the majority ruling, particularly for people of color.

In the case, Utah v. Strieff, a police officer investigating possible narcotics activity in a house decided to stop Edward Strieff, who left the house, even though there were no reasonable grounds for the stop, which made it illegal. The officer then ran a check on Mr. Strieff, found a warrant for a minor traffic violation, and arrested him on that prior offense. The officer then searched him, found illegal drugs, and charged him accordingly. Even though the Utah Supreme Court found that the evidence should have been suppressed because of the illegal stop, the Supreme Court reversed because of the prior unrelated warrant.

“The court today holds that the discovery of a warrant for an unpaid parking ticket will forgive a police officer’s violation of your Fourth Amendment rights,” Sotomayor wrote. “This case allows the police to stop you on the street, demand your identification and check it for outstanding traffic warrants – even If you are doing nothing wrong.” As she continued, “if the officer discovers a warrant for a fine you forgot to pay, courts will now excuse his illegal stop and will admit into evidence anything he happens to find by searching you after arresting you on the warrant.” Justices Sotomayor and Kagan (who also dissented as did Justice Ginsburg) explained that this danger is far from hypothetical: federal and state databases show more than 7.8 million outstanding warrants, most of which are for minor traffic and other offenses. For example, in Ferguson, Missouri, which has a population of 21,000, there are 16,000 such outstanding warrants.

In a part of her dissent that she wrote only for herself, Sotomayor highlighted the problems that minorities face due to police stops. “For generations,” she explained, “black and brown parents have given their children ‘the talk’ – instructing them never to run down the street, always keep your hands where they can be seen, do not even think of talking back to a stranger – all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.” She added that people “routinely targeted by the police” are the “canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere,” She continued that “unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives.” Until the voices of these people “matter, too,” she concluded, “our justice system will continue to be anything but.”

The majority tried to minimize the impact of its ruling, stating that the stop was not a “flagrant” violation or part of a “dragnet” or “systematic or recurrent police misconduct,” but simply an “isolated instance” of an error by a police officer. Time and future cases will tell if Strieff will truly be an isolated case and if the Court will prevent abuse. Much will depend on the future votes of Justice Breyer, who joined the majority in the case, and of course the unfilled vacancy on the Court being held open by Republican obstructionism. But Sotomayor’s strong opinion was a remarkable and important statement that will hopefully help shape the future direction of the Court. As University of Chicago law professor Justin Driver put it, her dissent is “the strongest indication we have yet that the Black Lives Matter movement has made a difference at the Supreme Court--- at least with one justice.”

PFAW

Letter from Top Lawyers at Major Companies Urges Senate to Act on Merrick Garland Nomination

The stubborn refusal by Senate Republicans to consider the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court has caused the Supreme Court to deliberate with only 8, rather than its full complement of 9 justices. Senators have a constitutional responsibility to give fair consideration to the president’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, yet they continue to neglect this responsibility as it has been 100 days since President Obama nominated Judge Garland to fill the seat left vacant by Justice Scalia’s death earlier this year. 

On Thursday, top lawyers from 44 United States companies, such as Nike and Qualcomm, released a letter calling on the Senate Judiciary Committee to move forward on this nomination, emphasizing that “[t]he business community has a great interest in avoiding the legal uncertainty that could result if the vacancy remains unfilled for an extended period of time.”

Bloomberg reports: “The signers of the letter include Michael Fricklas of Viacom; Hilary Krane of Nike; David Ellen of Cablevision Systems Corp.; Ivan Fong of 3M Co.; Donald J. Rosenberg of Qualcomm Inc.; Lori Schechter of McKesson Corp.; and Audrey Strauss of Alcoa Inc. The letter was spearheaded by Jonathan Schwartz, general counsel of Univision Communications Inc.”

PFAW

Garland Gets the ABA's Highest Possible Evaluation

The ABA has released its evaluation of Chief Judge Merrick Garland’s qualifications for the Supreme Court, and – surprise! – he earned their highest possible rating:  Every member of the evaluation committee that combed through his record and talked to practitioners around the country agreed: Judge Garland is well qualified to serve on the Supreme Court.

This isn’t a surprise.  We’ve known all along how incredibly well qualified he is.  But the ABA has put online a very detailed explanation of how they reached their conclusion.  For anyone who doubts that this is an excellent nomination, this ABA report is must-reading.

Integrity is essential in any judge, especially on the Supreme Court.  Not surprisingly, the committee heard amazing things about Judge Garland’s integrity.  Some sample quotes from the people the committee reached out to:

  • “Garland’s integrity is off the scales.”
  • “I do not know a finer person than Judge Garland. He is very solid, has the utmost integrity, and is a totally scrupulous, kind and generous person. It is hard to find a nicer person.”

As for his professional competence, the ABA panel was clearly extremely impressed.  Here is how they summarized what they heard from those who know best:

The unanimous consensus of everyone we interviewed was that Judge Garland is superbly competent to serve on the United States Supreme Court. This significant point warrants repeating:  all of the experienced, dedicated, and knowledgeable sitting judges, several former solicitor generals from both political parties, legal scholars from top law schools across the country, and lawyers who have worked with or against the nominee in private practice, government or within the judiciary describe the nominee as outstanding in all respects and cite specific evidence in support of that view.

When you read that paragraph, you can almost hear the ABA members saying “Wow!”

Regardless of judicial or political ideology, everyone wholeheartedly agrees that Judge Garland is supremely well qualified.

Unfortunately, there is one holdout group that is putting politics about all else: Senate Republicans, who still refuse to even hold a confirmation hearing for the nominee.

So while the ABA gives Judge Garland its highest possible rating, Senate Republicans are giving him the finger.  And it’s the American people who lose.

PFAW

Criticism Mounts for Senate GOP Obstruction of Judges

Perhaps the most vital role the United States Constitution assigns to the Senate is the vetting of federal judicial nominees.  An efficient and independent judiciary is vital to those seeking to vindicate their legal rights.  It is also vital to maintaining the separation of powers, which the Founders recognized as a cornerstone of our freedom.

Yet Republicans have done everything in their power to obstruct all of President Obama’s judicial nominees.  Since they’ve taken control of the Senate, Republicans have used their enhanced power to slow down the confirmation rate to historic lows. And by blockading a Supreme Court nominee regardless of his qualifications, they have drawn more attention recently to how they’ve been sabotaging the confirmation process for federal judges at all levels.

Today’s New York Times has a devastating editorial – The Senate’s Confirmation Shutdown – detailing the obstruction.  Beginning with the most prominent example – the refusal to allow President Obama to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, regardless of the nominee’s qualifications – the editorial sets out a powerful indictment of how the Senate GOP has used its control of the chamber to keep federal courts around the country understaffed:

 This has been enormously damaging to the district courts, which deal with hundreds of thousands of cases annually, and where backlogs drag out lawsuits and delay justice. It also harms the appeals courts, whose rulings are the final word in nearly all litigation, since the Supreme Court hears only about 75 cases a year.

 How bad has it gotten? Compare the current Senate’s abysmal record with the Democratic-led Senate that President George W. Bush faced in the last two years of his administration. By June 2008, the Senate had approved 46 of Mr. Bush’s judicial nominees; they confirmed a total of 68 by September. In contrast, Mr. McConnell’s Senate has confirmed only 20 of Mr. Obama’s judges since Republicans took control in January 2015, the slowest pace since the early 1950s. Appellate judges accounted for just two of those confirmations, fewer than at any time since the 19th century.

Those twenty confirmations during the past year-and-a-half include two for the Court of International Trade.  The other 18 are for district and circuit courts, fewer than the number of post offices they’ve renamed so far this Congress.

The result is a substantial increase in the number of vacancies since the GOP took over the Senate, with the number of judicial emergencies (vacancies with overwhelming backlogs that impede access to justice) skyrocketing to 2½ times what it was at the beginning of this Congress.  The Times continues:

It would be easy to fill most of these vacancies if the Senate did its job. Currently, 37 of Mr. Obama’s nominees remain bottled up in the Senate Judiciary Committee, 30 of whom are still waiting for their hearing; 17 more have been approved by the committee but have not been scheduled for a full Senate vote. To make matters worse, Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has said he will shut down the confirmation process, such as it is, before the presidential nominating conventions in July.

Not mincing words, the Times editorial calls this behavior “disgraceful and disgusting,” warning that Senate Republicans “should not be surprised if, come November, the voters choose representatives who actually do their job.”

Indeed, the message Senate Republicans are hearing from Americans is to #DoYourJob.

They could start by holding a hearing for Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland.  They could also stop delaying committee votes on nominees like Don Schott for the Seventh Circuit (whose vote today was delayed simply because committee Republicans could delay it).  They could hold hearings for qualified circuit court nominees like California’s Lucy Koh for the Ninth Circuit and North Dakota’s Jennifer Kelmetsrud Puhl for the Eighth Circuit, both of whom have the support of their home state senators.  Republicans could also stop blocking hearings for Indiana’s Myra Selby for the Seventh Circuit, Alabama’s Abdul Kallon for the Eleventh Circuit, Kentucky’s Lisabeth Tabor Hughes for the Sixth Circuit, and Pennsylvania’s Rebecca Haywood for the Third Circuit, all of whom are currently facing obstruction by Republican home state senators who simply want to prevent President Obama from filling these vacancies.

Whether it’s the Supreme Court, the circuit courts, or the district courts, Senate Republicans are keeping as many vacancies open for as long as possible, so that they can be filled by a President Donald Trump, whose racist comments about judicial qualifications and whose attacks on judicial independence should, in a sane party, disqualify him from being given the power to nominate judges at all.

PFAW

New Campaign Slogan for Pat Toomey?

Last month, Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell put on a great dog-and-pony show to make it look like Toomey was working to get his home-state nominees confirmed.  This afternoon, Toomey had a chance to really support those nominees, and he was – surprise! – missing in action.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked for unanimous consent for the Senate to vote to confirm all 15 federal district court nominees pending on the Senate floor.  Most have been waiting for more than four months since committee approval for a floor vote, including two from Pennsylvania who were jointly recommended by Sens. Toomey and Bob Casey.  In fact, six of the nominees have been waiting for a vote since last year!

McConnell objected.  Toomey was nowhere to be found to stand up for his nominees, who would fill vacancies that have been open since August and September of 2013.

Then Sen. Warren sought unanimous consent to vote on a smaller list, one that still included the Pennsylvania nominees.  And once again, McConnell objected, and Toomey was nowhere to be found.

(Warren then tried with only four non-Pennsylvania nominees, then only one, but her efforts were nevertheless shot down, this time by Republican Orrin Hatch.)

This would have been a great opportunity for Toomey to stand up to his party boss and demand a vote for his nominees, who were fully vetted and approved unanimously by the Judiciary Committee way back in January.  As a member of the majority party, Toomey’s requests would presumably carry more weight with McConnell than Casey’s.  But we’ll never know, because Toomey would not publicly stand up against McConnell.

This is sadly reminiscent of Toomey’s non-supportive “support” for Pennsylvanian Phil Restrepo for the Third Circuit, when Toomey cooperated with GOP leadership in their efforts to slow down the confirmation process as much as possible.

And of course, Toomey quickly obeyed when McConnell demanded that his fellow Republicans refuse to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.  This unprecedented act of obstruction has significant harmful consequences, as described in a recent report by our affiliate People For the American Way Foundation and the Constitutional Accountability Center.

So perhaps Toomey could adopt this as a campaign slogan:

Pat Toomey:  Putting Pennsylvania first  (Except when his Washington DC party boss tells him not to)

PFAW

While Trump Makes Racist Attacks On Judge, GOP Holds a Supreme Court Seat for Him to Fill?

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

It was both completely in character and shamefully beyond the pale when Donald Trump accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who is presiding over two lawsuits against Trump University, of having an “inherent conflict of interest” in the cases because of the judge’s Mexican heritage. On Sunday he extended that charge to Muslim judges, who he also suspects would be unable to remain unbiased. If there was a shred of doubt remaining on the question of whether Donald Trump is fit to make judicial nominations before this attack, that debate is now over. Even GOP senators arespeaking out against Trump’s remarks. But in a contortion act that defies logic, those same senators continue to go to extraordinary lengths to hold open the vacant Supreme Court seat for the very person whose approach to judicial matters they are condemning.

GOP leaders rushed to denounce Trump’s remarks about Judge Curiel, with Republican senators including Kelly Ayotte, Jeff Flake, Rob Portman, and Mitch McConnell speaking out against his comments and House Speaker Paul Ryan calling them “out of left field” even though even a casual observer knows they were coming right from home plate for the past year. Trump has been consistent in his baseless attacks on entire communities since the first day of his campaign, when he smeared Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers. And if some in the GOP are (rightly) condemning Trump’s vision of a justice system in which some judges are prohibited from doing their jobs because of their ethnic background, why are they going to extraordinary lengths to put him in the driver’s seat of our nominating process?

GOP senators are still doing everything they can to block President Obama from filling the Supreme Court vacancy. Rather than follow the Constitution and give fair consideration to President Obama’s extraordinarily qualified and respected nominee, GOP senators are running a campaign of unprecedented obstruction in order to allow Trump to make the Supreme Court nomination instead.

Let’s be clear: Trump had already provided countless reasons to call into question his fitness to nominate judges. This is a man who supports killing the family members of terrorists and wants to “open up” libel laws so he can go after journalists. That he’s now implying whole swaths of people are not fit for the federal bench is one of the most disturbing examples yet of Trump’s contempt for the independence of the judiciary and for Americans different from him. It goes against the most fundamental values of our country, and it is Exhibit A of why he should never be the person nominating judges at the Supreme Court or any level.

It’s no wonder Americans are worried about the prospect of Donald Trump making judicial nominations. Even before his attack on Judge Curiel, a recent poll found that the majority of Americans don’t trust Trump to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, and they’re none too pleased with the senators obstructing President Obama’s nominee.Half of voters say they are “less likely to vote for a senator who opposed having confirmation hearings” for Judge Merrick Garland. For Republican senators in tight reelection battles, their unwillingness to do their jobs is increasingly and rightfully becoming a liability with voters.

The fact that GOP senators are flat-out refusing to do their jobs on the Supreme Court was already an outrage. That they are now working to hold the seat open for a man who thinks some judges can’t do their jobs because of their ethnic background or religion is unconscionable and should be, quite frankly, embarrassing to all Republicans. GOP leaders are in a position of both condemning Trump’s approach to judicial issues and working to make sure he’s the one to make lifetime judicial appointments. Make sense? It doesn’t to me, either.

The choice is now crystal clear. It’s time to call the question and give Merrick Garland a vote.  

PFAW

More and More Agree: Eight is NOT Enough for the Supreme Court

Over the last few days, both the Washington Post and prominent constitutional law professor Laurence Tribe have joined the growing chorus of voices, including Republican as well as Democratic judges, making clear that eight justices are NOT enough for the nine-member Supreme Court, and that the continuing vacancy caused by Senate Republicans’ unprecedented refusal to even consider President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland for the vacant Court seat is unconscionable. As the Post put it, the continued vacancy has required the Court to “punt, duck, dodge and weave around contentious issues,” creating “dysfunction.” These problems are documented in more detail in the recent report by PFAW Foundation and the Constitutional Accountability Center, “Material Harm to our System of Justice: the Consequences of an Eight-Member Supreme Court.”

As the report explains, the continuing vacancy has already produced several 4-4 splits on the Court, leaving the contested lower court decision in place but setting no national precedent. In one situation, the result was that the Court could not resolve conflicting interpretations of federal law on loan discrimination in different lower courts, causing confusion and different rules for different people around the country. Specifically, as a result of this Supreme Court 4-4 split, people in some states can be required to get their spouse to co-sign a bank loan, while in other states, some right next door, that requirement is illegal.

In addition to several 4-4 splits, the continued vacancy has caused the eight-member Court to effectively punt several important cases for later review by a full Court, again leaving uncertainty and confusion as a result. For example, in the Zubik case concerning whether religious employers can effectively deny to their employees contraceptive coverage required by the ACA because of religious objections, the Court vacated conflicting lower court decisions and suggested that the government and the employers try to find a compromise and then go back to the lower courts, and the Supreme Court, if necessary. The continued litigation by some religious employers makes clear that future resolution by a nine-member Court will be necessary. But in the meantime, uncertainty about these important rights remains. As the report explains, the continued vacancy also appears to have decreased the number of important cases the Court has agreed to review next term starting in October, and makes it difficult for the Court to issue important temporary stay decisions in divisive cases where decisions must be made quickly, as in cases seeking temporary halts of executions or new election rules.

As a result, both Republican and Democratic-appointed judges and justices, including Chief Justice Roberts, Retired Justice John Paul Stevens, and the late Justice Scalia himself, have explained that having a full complement of nine members is important for a fully-functioning Court. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed last week, commenting publicly that “eight is not a good number” for the Court.

And as the Post also explained, the Senate Republican leaders that are responsible for this problem “are doing more than ever to discredit themselves,” claiming that their blockade is about the non-existent “principle” that a vacancy that arises in an election year should be filled by the next president, contrary to history and the Constitution, while at the same time claiming that Republicans could find no “worse nominee” than Judge Garland. This is despite the fact that these very same Republican leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have agreed that Judge Garland is “well-qualified.”  As the Post concludes, this admission should “end the discussion”: Judge Garland should receive a hearing and should be confirmed. But if the Senate Republican blockade continues, the eight-member Court will only cause further harm to our system of justice.

PFAW

Report by Elizabeth Warren Slams GOP Obstruction of Nominees

Since Senate Judiciary Chair Chuck Grassley is making sure that the committee he runs completely ignores Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination, one might think that he’s using the extra time to at least process the president’s many circuit and district nominees. Not!

While Grassley and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s brazen and unprecedented refusal to consider Garland has drawn a great deal of attention,  PFAW has long reported on how this obstruction, far from being unique to Garland, is an extension of how the Senate GOP has treated President Obama’s lower court nominees for most of his time in office.

Today, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has made a tremendous contribution to the national conversation, issuing a new report entitled Going to Extremes: The Supreme Court and Senate Republicans’ Unprecedented Record of Obstruction of President Obama’s Nominees.  The senator covers how Republicans have worked hard not to thoughtfully vet both judicial and executive branch nominations, but to slow down their confirmations as much as possible, or block their confirmations altogether.

She uses Senate Republicans’ own statements about the Garland nomination to show the disingenuousness of the rationales for obstruction they present to the public and demonstrates that their obstruction is unprecedented.  And with a prosecutor’s efficiency, she makes the powerful case that the GOP has consistently and deliberately slow-walked or blocked altogether the president’s circuit and district court nominees, as well as his executive branch nominees.

Supported with facts and figures from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, Sen. Warren’s new report is a devastating indictment of a political party that has misused the confirmation process to prevent the executive and judicial branches from functioning effectively to protect consumers and workers, hold large corporations accountable, and protect equality.

As she notes in the report’s conclusion:

From the moment the Supreme Court vacancy arose, Senate Republicans linked arms in an attempt to deny President Obama the full authority of his office in the final year of his presidency. They cynically claimed they wish to “let the people decide,” but the people have already decided. Twice. They elected President Obama in 2008 by nine million votes and re-elected him in 2012 by five million votes. Republicans’ statements over many weeks have made clear that their true interest is what it has been for the past eight years: to block and hinder President Obama at every turn, dragging out or blocking outright the confirmation of nominees across the government and the courts.

As the report shows, the GOP has a shameful record of obstruction going back to President Obama’s first days in office.  The unprecedented blockade against Garland is only the apex of a pattern that has gone on for years.

PFAW

Do Mitch McConnell and Chuck Grassley Agree With Trump That No Mexican Americans Should Serve On The Supreme Court?

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear this week not only that he wants Donald Trump to be president, but that the main reason he wants Trump to be president is so that he will be the one picking Supreme Court justices.

The Republican leader told radio host Hugh Hewitt that “the Supreme Court is the biggest thing the next president will deal with.” He continued, “I made sure of that by making sure that this president doesn’t get to pick this nominee and get them confirmed on the way out the door. But that alone, that issue alone will define much of what America is like for the next generation.”

According to McConnell, “That issue alone is enough to convince me to support Donald Trump.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley also recently expressed his support for Trump selecting a Supreme Court justice to fill the vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. He told the Des Moines Register, “Based upon the type of people he’d be looking for, I think I would expect the right type of people to be nominated by him to the Supreme Court.”

Yesterday, Trump made clear that he applies a racial test when assessing the impartiality of judges, telling The Wall Street Journal that Judge Gonzalo Curiel should not preside over a fraud case involving his Trump University scam real estate seminars case because the federal judge has “an absolute conflict.”

According to Trump, Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” is “an inherent conflict of interest” because “I’m building a wall.” Curiel, whose parents are from Mexico, was born in Indiana.

Trump’s pronouncement raises a serious question for the Republicans who are engaging in an unprecedented effort to stop President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, from so much as getting a Senate hearing, with the apparent goal to keep the seat open for a President Trump to fill.

Trump claims that a judge’s heritage is a conflict of interest because it means that he will be biased against Trump.

During every president’s term, numerous cases involving their policies or interpretations of the law are argued before the Supreme Court. If Trump believes a district court judge’s heritage creates an unfair bias against him, then one can assume that he thinks this same bias would exist in a judge on the highest court.

Approximately 10 percent of our country’s population is of Mexican heritage, and Donald Trump’s racial test would exclude every single one of them from the judiciary. Perhaps this explains why the list of potential Supreme Court nominees that Trump released last month was 100% white.

McConnell, Grassley and other Republicans obstructing President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as they hope for a Republican victory in November now need to answer whether or not they too would apply Donald Trump’s racial test to the court.

PFAW

Supreme Court’s Recent Non-Decisions Highlight Importance of the Court in June and Beyond

This piece originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

Perhaps the most important thing about the Supreme Court this May was what it didn’t decide. As Justice Ginsburg candidly admitted to a group of lawyers, having only eight justices hamstrings the Court by making it more difficult to decide closely-divided cases. Far from suggesting that the Court’s importance has diminished, however, the Court’s non-decisions in May show just how important the Court continues to be, particularly in this fall’s elections.

With only eight justices, the Court issued two non-decision decisions in May that effectively punted important controversies for a future, fully-staffed Court to decide, but leaving significant confusion and uncertainty in the meantime. In the Zubik case, rather than splitting 4-4, the Court issued a brief unsigned opinion and vacated conflicting rulings in the lower courts on whether the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows religious nonprofit colleges and other employers to effectively take away Affordable Care Act-required contraceptive coverage from their female employees. The Court directed that the lower courts should give the government and the objecting employers another opportunity to try to resolve the issue, and then decide the cases again if necessary, with Supreme Court review after that if needed. While resolving such controversies voluntarily is a desirable goal, it is clear from the prolonged litigation that at least some religious employers will not agree to any resolution under which its employees will get contraceptive insurance coverage from its insurer. The result is uncertainty for millions of women about their contraceptive coverage, as well as for religious employers about their claims.

The same day that the Court effectively punted in Zubik, it also issued a non-decision decision in the Spokeo case. In that case, the Court was to decide whether Congress may give individuals the right to sue for damages in federal court, so that they have “standing” to sue, when a federal law has been violated even in the absence of other actual injury.  This is an important issue since it affects the ability of Congress and individuals to hold companies accountable when they violate federal law.  In a 6-2 decision, the Court did not resolve the question of whether the individual in Spokeoactually had standing, but instead suggested that the lower court’s analysis was “incomplete,” and sent the case back to that court to reconsider the issue, without taking any position on the key issue presented by the case. This important question will need to be revisited by the Court again, after it again has nine justices.

During May, the Court accepted only three new cases for review starting in October, making a total of eight since Justice Scalia’s death. Legal commentators have suggested that the decisions not to take up more significant cases for  review is another result of an eight-justice court, with the remaining justices concerned about their ability to resolve controversial cases — again creating uncertainty about people’s rights.

Finally, non-decisions in three major pending cases in May, concerning affirmative action, reproductive rights, and immigration, will almost certainly lead to some kind of decisions in these cases in June, as the Court completes its work this term, with significant consequences for millions of Americans. Some decision on the merits is most likely in the Fisher case concerning affirmative action in college admissions, since Justice Kagan’s recusal from the case leaves the Court with seven members. The precise result will likely depend on swing Justice Anthony Kennedy, and may affect millions of minority students across America.

4-4 ties are quite possible in some of the remaining cases, including Whole Women’s Health, which concerns the constitutionality of extreme and unnecessary restrictions on abortion clinics in Texas. Advocates strongly believe the Court should resolve this case in favor of reproductive rights, which would protect the rights of millions, but the Court is clearly divided. Although not setting any national precedent, a simple tie vote in this case would leave the lower court opinions standing, which could effectively deprive all but the richest women in Texas of the ability to choose abortion. The Court will clearly be taking significant action soon.

In the meantime, Senate Republican leaders have refused to budge on their unprecedented blockade of the President’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to fill the vacant seat on the court, refusing even to grant him a hearing. It is becoming increasingly clear that they are trying to hold open that vacancy to be filled by, they hope, a President Trump. Trump’s list of potential nominees (also released in May) includes people who have called Roe v. Wade the “worst abomination in the history of constitutional law” and two others who voted to make their appellate court the only one in the country that sided with religious nonprofits’ efforts to deprive female employees of birth control.

To Senate Republican leaders and their right-wing allies, the stakes are clear. They will do everything they can to ensure that the current Court vacancy, and the additional vacancies very likely to arise in the next president’s term, are filled by far-right justices who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, limit contraceptive coverage, and set the clock back on civil rights and liberties for America. That is why continuing efforts to push Senate Republican leaders to take action on President Obama’s nomination is so important, and why the Supreme Court is such a critical issue in this fall’s elections.

PFAW