Supreme Court 101: Top takeaways from big rulings of the term

Not since the 1950s has the US Supreme Court handed down so many unanimous decisions – 65 percent of its 2013-14 cases. There are two explanations for the rise in 9-to-0 rulings.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
The Supreme Court building in Washington, Monday, June 30, 2014, following various court decisions.

Restraining executive power, protecting free speech, affirming religious liberty, and establishing a higher standard of privacy in the Digital Age are among major themes addressed in decisions handed down during the US Supreme Court’s 2013-14 term.

The term, which began in October, ended Monday when the high court released the last of its opinions and began its summer recess.

Among significant decisions of the term, the court:

• Ruled 5 to 4 that the federal government cannot force the religious owners of closely held, for-profit corporations to provide their employees with certain kinds of birth control that offend the owners’ religious beliefs.

• Unanimously affirmed broad Fourth Amendment privacy protections by requiring that police must obtain a warrant before searching the content of a cellphone seized from an individual during an arrest.

• Voted 9 to 0 to invalidate an effort by President Obama to use his recess appointment authority to unilaterally declare the Senate in recess so he could bypass Senate opposition and install his picks onto the National Labor Relations Board. 

Overall, the high court decided 67 cases after hearing oral argument, and resolved five others through summary decisions.

In the process, the justices set a new standard for unanimity – voting 9 to 0 or 8 to 0 in 65 percent of their cases. It is a level of agreement unheard of since the early 1950s.

There are two explanations. First, the large number of 9-to-0 decisions reflects the fact that most cases accepted for review by the high court do not involve pitched battles in America’s divisive culture wars over issues such as abortion and race. Instead, a majority of the cases are highly technical and require clear resolution to help lower courts apply the law in a more uniform manner.

But that doesn’t explain the entire phenomenon. The rise in unanimous decisions this term is also the result of a project by Chief Justice John Roberts to find and exploit common ground among the justices – even in white-hot culture wars cases.

Legal analysts attribute this to the chief justice’s desire to protect the Supreme Court as an institution from accusations that the justices are little more than politicians in robes.

The concern is not trivial. The high court’s favorability ratings reached an all-time low a year ago, and the court is increasingly perceived as a lucrative target for special-interest groups and politicians across the ideological spectrum hoping to raise funds and mobilize angry voters.

Mr. Obama has attacked the court for decisions with which he disagreed, most famously using the justices’ presence at his 2010 State of the Union address to criticize them for their Citizens United decision that cut back on campaign finance reforms.

Whether the chief justice’s push for more unanimous decisions insulates the court from attacks remains to be seen. And, at least so far, there is no indication that the effort has diminished sharp divisions among the justices.

Indeed, the court decided 10 cases (14 percent of its total) by 5-to-4 votes, including some of the most significant decisions of the term.

Even in some of the cases decided by 9-to-0 votes, deeper divisions were clear in sharply worded concurring opinions that read more like dissents.

In the recess appointments case, Justice Antonin Scalia agreed that Obama overstepped his authority under the Constitution's recess appointments clause. But in a “concurring” opinion, Justice Scalia said his strict reading of the text of that clause would have resulted in a sharply constrained use of the recess appointment power by Obama and future presidents.

Instead, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, adopted a broader interpretation of the clause – including considering past practices in recess appointments followed at various times throughout US history. Four other justices, including swing justice Anthony Kennedy, embraced Justice Breyer’s approach.

The result is that although Obama’s recess appointments maneuver was invalidated by a 9-to-0 vote, the subsequent interpretation of the recess appointments clause that will apply in all future cases and for all future presidents was effectively a 5-to-4 decision.

The same dynamic emerged in a decision invalidating a Massachusetts law that established a 35-foot protective zone around abortion clinics.

In a 9-to-0 decision written by Chief Justice Roberts, the court struck down the law because it amounted to unjustifiable government censorship of all speech within a zone on a public sidewalk and public street.

The law had been justified on grounds that disruptive and potentially violent anti-abortion protesters were blocking clinic entrances. But the court rejected the state’s claim that there was no less-restrictive way to protect the clinic and its patients without banning speech in a public area.

Beneath that 9-to-0 façade, however, four of the court’s conservatives said the Massachusetts law was unconstitutional primarily because it amounted to viewpoint discrimination by the state government to suppress speech opposed to abortion.

In his “concurrence,” Scalia said he agreed with the majority only in that the law is unconstitutional under the First Amendment. But he declined to join the court’s broader reasoning and what he called its “specious unanimity.”

Among other important decisions this term, the high court:

• Upheld the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate greenhouse gases, marking an important victory for Obama and his environmental agenda. But in reaching that decision, the majority justices rejected the EPA’s broad interpretation of its own authority to rewrite pollution limits set by Congress in the Clean Air Act.

• Continued to chip away at campaign finance reform measures that the court’s conservative wing views as too restrictive of First Amendment freedoms. The court voted 5 to 4 to invalidate limits on the total amount of money someone can give in aggregate to federal candidates in an election cycle.

• Voted 5 to 4 to uphold the giving of a prayer prior to town hall meetings in the Town of Greece, N.Y. The court said the practice was confirmed by tradition and did not amount to a violation of First Amendment’s establishment clause even though most of the prayers offered reflected a Christian outlook.

• Invalidated the method used in Florida to determine whether a death-row inmate with a mental disability is eligible for capital punishment. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court said the state’s use of a strict cutoff tied to an IQ score of 70 or less violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

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