Sunday, July 01, 2012

Analyzing This SCOTUS Term To Predict The Next

In today's New York Times reporter Adam Liptak analyzes the just-completed 2011-12 term of the United States Supreme Court and unearths some interesting (and surprising) facts. The Court heard oral arguments in 65 cases and summarily decided 10 other cases without oral argument. That's 75 decisions in which certioari was granted despite getting literally thousands of appeals from all the lower courts in the land.

Chief Justice John Roberts was only 1 percentage point behind Anthony Kennedy, who is widely viewed as the fulcrum around which the nation's highest court pivots around, in the percentage of cases in which they were in the majority (92% to 93%). This number is a widely watched measure as a signifier for the most "powerful" or influential member of the Court.
The court decided 15 cases by 5-to-4 votes, roughly in line with earlier terms. It was also not unusual that two-thirds of those decisions divided along ideological lines, with Justice Kennedy joining either the court’s four more liberal members (Justices Kagan, Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor) or its four more conservative ones (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Scalia and Clarence Thomas). 
What was striking this year was that Justice Kennedy, a moderate conservative, swung right and left an equal number of times. Since 2000, there have been only two terms in which Justice Kennedy did not vote with the conservatives at least 60 percent of the time in such ideologically divided cases.
Is Kennedy evolving to the left? I guess I'm pretty happy with a 10-point shift towards liberal results instead of his usual 60-40 split between conservative and liberal positions. Maybe it's because he seems to be getting closer to Elena Kagan, since the two voted similarly 83% of the time this term. There are only two pairs of justices who voted similarly more than 90% of the time  (you guessed it!) Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas with the other (somewhat surprising) pair being George W. Bush appointees Roberts and  Samuel Alito. I guess "Scalito" is not living up to his reputation to become "a little Scalia" on the Court.
And that's a good thing. As his absolutely unacceptable fit of pique in the Arizona immigration ruling aptly demonstrated, even one Scalia on the Supreme Court is one too many!

You should really read Liptak's entire piece for yourself. There are some big gay rights cases coming up in the 2012-13 term, most likely involving the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and another determining the constitutionality of California's attempt to withdraw marriage rights from same-sex couples by allowing voters to amend the state constitution after California's Supreme Court had ruled such a right exists (2008's Proposition 8). These cases are known as Gill and Perry, respectively. We'll know on the first Monday of October whether the Court will indeed accept these cases for final review (and issue a ruling by this time next year). There are also some very high-stakes cases coming in the new term dealing with race. The Court has already agreed to hear oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas which it could use to completely strike down race-based affirmative action in higher education. In addition, there are several voting rights cases at the federal appellate circuit level, particularly Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, which will almost certainly reach the Court in the 2012-13 term and could be used to strike down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It's this provision of federal civil rights legislation which has been instrumental in putting a check on Republican politicians' attempt to suppress the voting rights of Black and Latino voters in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, Wisconsin and others through enactment of "voter identification" laws.

In the meantime it is useful to analyze last year's term to see if any ideological movement can be discerned which can help predict how the Court will rule in Gill and Perry, though as the ruling upholding the health care reform law demonstrated, accurately predicting how the Court will rule in any particular case is almost impossible!

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