On The Docket, In Limbo: Scalia's Death Casts Uncertainty On Key Cases

Feb 15, 2016
Originally published on February 17, 2016 5:05 pm

Antonin Scalia's death leaves a void in many ways, but the most immediate effect will be on the outcome of several major cases pending before the Supreme Court.

Scalia's absence means some of these cases may result in 4-4 tie votes in the weeks and months just ahead. In that event, the rulings made by lower courts will be allowed to stand. Court observers have been scrambling to assess which of the pending cases in the current term are most likely to wind up in ties.

They include cases that test abortion access restrictions in Texas; the right of public employee unions to collect mandatory dues; two cases of conflicting rights involving religious liberty; the means by which population is defined for political purposes; and the legal enforceability of President Obama's executive actions broadening a program of deferred deportations for certain immigrants.

Most Supreme Court cases are not decided by the minimum majority of 5-4. But many of the most significant cases in recent years have come down that way. That includes recent landmark cases invalidating parts of the Voting Rights Act and weakening campaign finance laws. In those cases, Scalia's vote was crucial to the victory of the court's conservative bloc.

Now, with Scalia gone, any case in which his vote would have been decisive will be left in stalemate, and the last ruling by a lower court will remain in force. Usually, that lower court in question will have been one of the 13 federal circuit courts of appeal. It will be as if the Supreme Court had simply allowed the appeals court ruling to stand and never taken the case in the first place.

In any and all cases where the court is stuck at 4-4, the decision by the lower court will stand but will not have precedent-setting value, meaning it will not apply nationwide and the Supreme Court may return to the issue later when it has a full complement of justices.

The issue of restoring a full Supreme Court may well be open for some time. Although the president has said he intends to honor his constitutional obligation to fill the vacancy as soon as possible, the political reality is that he needs some cooperation from the Senate. Key Republicans quickly made clear over the weekend that there would be little of that.

As a practical matter, that would mean a shorthanded court, not only for the remainder of this term but also for the next term, which begins in October and would be nearing its end before the next president's nominee could be confirmed and seated.

Scalia's vote to freeze enforcement of Obama's orders reducing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, announced on Feb. 9, will stand because that 5-4 order had already been issued. The court said the Obama administration could not enforce the plan until all legal challenges had been resolved. A shorthanded court in the months ahead could elevate the importance of the decision on that issue by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which is expected to rule before summer.

But Scalia will not have a vote in cases that have yet to be argued in the current term. Nor will his vote count in undecided cases that have been argued in court and subjected to a first vote by the justices in conference. Even though Scalia participated in such hearings and conferences, his vote is now considered void.

The big cases still hanging fire in this court term include these major and far-reaching controversies:

Friedrichs V. California Teachers Association

The conflict here goes to the heart of public employee unions' power and viability. Earlier court decisions had said the unions could not require members to pay dues to support a union's political activities. But the plaintiffs in this case say in essence that all of the unions' activities are political, including the negotiations for wage rates and working conditions. The unions argue that individuals should not be allowed to opt out of dues and still be "free riders" who enjoy the benefits of the contract. Scalia had been open to that argument in the past but in this term seemed less so.

Zubik V. Burwell

Under the Affordable Care Act, employers offering health care plans must include contraceptive coverage. Churches and other religious organizations were exempt, but other religious nonprofits such as schools have wanted the exemption too and sued to get it in the Hobby Lobby case. The plaintiffs here object to participating in any way with the contraceptive-related provisions of the law, even to use the workaround provisions provided for them, saying it would violate their rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Seven different circuit courts of appeals have ruled in favor of the government on this issue, but the Supreme Court took it for review. If the lack of Scalia's vote ties this decision at 4-4, the lower courts' rulings will prevail.

Whole Woman's Health V. Hellerstedt

Next month the justices are scheduled to hear a case testing the standard of "undue burden" by which state-imposed restrictions on abortion have been adjudicated since a 1992 decision by the Supreme Court of that time. At issue is the recent Texas state law requiring any abortion facility to meet standards tantamount to those of a hospital and requiring the doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within close proximity. These conditions have already forced many abortion clinics in the state to close.

Scalia was expected to vote to uphold the Texas law. But this is a case where his absence may not make a difference. If swing voter Anthony Kennedy joined the court's liberal bloc and voted to strike down the provision, Scalia's vote would have been among the four on the losing side in any event. On the other hand, if Kennedy votes with the conservatives, they can still prevail even without Scalia. That is because the resulting 4-4 tie would allow the lower court ruling in favor of the Texas restrictions to stand.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia Inc. V. Pauley

Is it fair to say that separation of church and state prohibits a church from receiving a state grant for a recycling program? The Lutheran church in Missouri in this case wanted to use the grant for a children's playground surface made from recycled tires. This case is seen as having larger implications for voucher programs and the sharing of state money with religious schools if state legislators choose to allow it. Scalia was often a vote in favor of religious institutions and the exercise of rights of religious liberty and the generous interpretation of those rights.

United States V. Texas

President Obama's executive actions to extend "deferred deportation" to more immigrants now in the country illegally was immediately controversial when issued late in 2014. A federal district judge in Texas said the order violated the Administrative Procedure Act, and a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court upheld that ruling. The White House supported having this decision go straight to the Supreme Court rather than be reviewed by the entire 5th Circuit Court.

The decision here could affect 5 million or more people now in the country without legal status (or with uncertain status) whose immediate family members do have legal residency. It is scheduled to be heard by the court in April. However, it is possible Scalia's absence will not be critical here, as he was not expected to provide one of the five votes Obama will need to prevail. If the vote is 4-4, the 5th Circuit decision will stand. It would not, however, have the same power of precedent regarding presidential authority that a definitive ruling by a majority of the justices would have.

Evenwel V. Abbott

This case turns on the question of what the Constitution and the Supreme Court may have meant when they referred to the "population" of a state or district. For generations, that term has been generally taken to mean the number of human beings living in that state or district — as counted or estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau. In its landmark "one person, one vote" decision in 1964, the Supreme Court ordered equalized populations in districts electing legislators, but did not precisely define population. Did the court mean people, or just eligible voters? Two plaintiffs in this case from Texas say their rights to equal representation were diluted, because the state counted everyone — not just eligible voters. So, they argue, the eligible voters in some districts are more powerful than in others.

Fisher V. University of Texas at Austin (Fisher II)

The University of Texas, Austin admits most of its freshman class by taking anyone from the top 10 percent of a Texas high school graduating class. But it also reserves space for others with other things to offer, including racial diversity. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has twice endorsed this plan, but the Supreme Court has had its doubts and sent the matter back for further review under the "equal protection" clause of the 14th Amendment. Scalia was expected to be part of a five-vote majority ruling against UT on this one, but this is a special case. That is because a 4-4 vote here is not possible. Justice Elena Kagan recused herself from deliberation (she had worked on the case prior to joining the court), so the conservatives may still prevail 4-3.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Supreme Court justices remembered their colleague, the late Antonin Scalia, over the weekend. To Clarence Thomas, who often sided with Scalia on the court, Scalia was a man of strong faith, a towering intellect, a legal giant and a dear, dear friend. To Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who often opposed Scalia, he was, quote, "a jurist of captivating brilliance," and simply her "best buddy."


Other mourners have created a small memorial at the foot of the Supreme Court steps. Samantha Montgomery, a political researcher here in Washington, left a bouquet yesterday of tiny white flowers known as Baby's Breath.

SAMANTHA MONTGOMERY: I just think he's done so much for conservatism. And I remember from back in college just reading his dissents, and their - his colorful - colorful analysis of things was just - just amazing. And I appreciated his bluntness.

GREENE: He was known for being blunt in many of those dissents. Now, Antonin Scalia's death does leave a void in so many ways. Most immediately, without Scalia, the court's famous five-four split becomes a four-four tie.

KELLY: All right, and to talk about that we are joined now by NPR senior editor and correspondent, Ron Elving. Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning, Mary Louise.

KELLY: When you think about Scalia's impact, what comes to mind?

ELVING: One has to say he is part of the legacy of Ronald Reagan, who appointed him to the court. And that is really the figure that one would compare him to. What Ronald Reagan meant to American politics and American life, Antonin Scalia meant to American jurisprudence.

GREENE: Ron, if you're describing someone with an influence as big as Ronald Reagan, I mean, both to the conservative movement and to the country, I mean, this really is going to leave a void. And, I mean, people just most urgently now are talking about what happens on the court with all of these cases on the docket. I mean, what's at stake without Scalia now?

ELVING: Right now there's potentially lots riding on the current term of the court. The current court docket has cases that test the abortion access restrictions in Texas, the right of public employee unions to collect mandatory dues. We have a couple of cases of conflicting rights involving religious liberty, and of course the legal enforceability of President Obama's executive actions allowing certain immigrants to remain here even though they're illegal in the country right now.

GREENE: Ron, some of the cases you were bringing up though, I mean, those are cases that are currently before the court. There haven't been a vote yet. So you're saying those could really be affected, and we could get a different decision without Scalia?

ELVING: That's right. And in such cases of course, not having Scalia on the court would change the outcome if he was going to be voting and casting the deciding vote in the majority. Now, if he was going to be on the losing side, it shouldn't make a difference. And if the court was going to be less closely divided, it shouldn't make a difference.

KELLY: So walk us through what happens, then, in a case where Scalia would have been the fifth vote for a majority, and now it's going to be four-four.

ELVING: Yes, that's the big focus. If it's four to four, it's a tie. And that means that the ruling by the last court that handled the case will stand. Whatever that appeals court decided becomes the last word. The big difference here is that it will apply only in the states that are part of the jurisdiction of that appellate court. It doesn't have the same nationwide precedent it would have if the Supreme Court had made a decision.

GREENE: So let's - Ron, let's talk about a few cases. I mean, one that comes to mind is this decision of the court announced last week putting a stay on the president's new clean-air program, that would have limited greenhouse gases. That decision was announced before Scalia's death. I'm sure there'll be a lot to implement it, but that decision stays.

ELVING: Exactly, you said the crucial words - because they got this out there, because it was announced last week, that means Scalia's vote is valid. And it's publicly decided. Therefore, that stay is going to be in place, and there's going to have to be a ruling made at the appellate court level before the Supreme Court would weigh in on that again.

KELLY: Other big question marks out there, I'm thinking, for example, of the California teachers' cases.

ELVING: Yes, this goes to the heart of public employee unions' power and maybe even viability. The question is whether employees can opt out of paying union dues while they still enjoy the benefits of the unions' collective bargaining, say for wages and working conditions. Scalia's vote might have meant a sweeping decision here against the unions. So it's potentially good news for them that this would be a four-four tie.

GREENE: And Ron, I think about the issue of immigration that you brought up. We're talking about millions of people in the country illegally and their fate. Some decisions out there - right - that might go very differently now.

ELVING: Yes. Now, this is part of the executive action the president took in November of 2014. A federal district judge in Texas said that move violated federal law, and a three-judge panel of one of the circuit courts upheld that ruling. So if this one winds up in a four-four tie, that would put the president's efforts on ice for at least the foreseeable future with regard to these people.

KELLY: What about, Ron, the president's effort on the Affordable Care Act? What impact could Scalia's death have there?

ELVING: It wouldn't be a Supreme Court docket without at least on challenge to Obamacare, would it (laughter)?

KELLY: (Laughter) Right. Some things don't change.

ELVING: And Obamacare says employers have to offer health care plans that include contraceptive coverage unless the employer is, say, a church or the equivalent. And then a lot of other religious-affiliated nonprofits said they wanted that exemption too. So the government worked out a way for them to comply with the law without providing the contraceptive coverage themselves. But the plaintiff in this particular case objects to that work around as well. So if this one winds up in a four-four tie and goes back to the circuit courts, 7 out of 8 circuit courts that have ruled on this case ruled for the government and against the plaintiffs. So that's how that would resolve if the Supreme Court can't resolve it.

GREENE: And Ron, before we let you go, just look at the political landscape for us. This is an election year. I mean, could Scalia's death really fundamentally change the debate in the presidential campaign?

ELVING: The Supreme Court is always an issue in a presidential campaign, but it's usually one in the background. Now it's going to be in the foreground, and it's going to have a face. When President Obama nominates someone later this month, that person is going to become the symbolic focus of this whole struggle.

GREENE: All right, Ron, thanks as always.

ELVING: Thank you both.

KELLY: That's NPR senior editor and correspondent Ron Elving. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.