Share this article

print logo

Last-minute whirlwind of rulings demonstrates court’s narrow divide

The Supreme Court, in a flurry of important, and close, decisions, has managed to anger nearly everyone across the political spectrum.

By upholding, 6-3, the subsidies vital to the Affordable Care Act, the court breathed new life into the flawed but necessary effort to extend health insurance to millions of Americans. And of course, the 5-4 decision to accede to fairness and the Constitution on the topic of same-sex marriage was a controversial victory for millions of Americans who had been denied the right afforded to heterosexual couples.

Other big issues were dealt with in the last few days of this term:

• The 5-4 decision clearing the way for Oklahoma and other death penalty states to execute convicted murderers using lethal injection. Dissenters questioned whether the death penalty itself is constitutional.

• In a 5-4 defeat for the Obama administration, the Environmental Protection Agency must consider cost when deciding whether to regulate mercury and other toxins emitted from coal-burning power plants.

• The court agreed to take another look at the use of race in college admissions with a case involving the University of Texas at Austin.

• The court, in a 5-4 vote, allowed nine Texas abortion clinics to remain open while justices consider whether to hear an appeal of a law effectively closing them.

The court remains closely divided. Tom Goldstein, publisher of Scotusblog, counted 26 cases this term that were both close, 5-4 or 6-3, and in which ideology appeared to be an important factor in reaching the decision. Goldstein calls Justice Anthony Kennedy the court’s “center,” who, while conservative, sided with liberal justices in some cases.

There is at least the potential for the center to shift in the next few years. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, appointed by Bill Clinton, is 83 years old and has overcome several bouts of severe illness. Stephen Breyer, also appointed by Clinton, is 76. Both have resisted hints that they retire while a Democratic president can nominate replacements.

Two other justices are in their late 70s: Antonin Scalia, 79, and Kennedy, 78, both appointed by Ronald Reagan.

When examining the narrow decisions and considering the age of some of the justices, it seems probable that the next president may be able to exert an outsize influence on the court, and the nation. Just one more reason for voters to choose the right candidate in 2016.