Monday provided some of the most prominent examples yet of how an eight-member court split with liberal and conservative justices is taking baby steps—or no steps at all—since Justice Antonin Scalia’s February death.
The phenomenon is present both in the court’s latest rulings and in its choices on which new cases to add for next fall’s lineup.
Monday’s non-fireworks began at 9:30 am, when the court issued a batch of orders after a two-week break from the bench. The justices added no new cases to the docket for its new term beginning in October. In total, the court has accepted just seven cases for review in the two months since Justice Scalia died, and has largely avoided taking on prominent issues, choosing cases on cheerleader uniforms and diapers instead.
The court turned away well more than 100 appeals Monday, including a case on student-loan debt-collection costs that might have appealed to the court when it still held a conservative majority.
The appeal challenged Supreme Court precedent that allows for judges to defer to a government agency’s interpretations of its own regulations. Justice Scalia and other conservatives previously had called for the court to abandon that precedent in an appropriate case. Dissenting from Monday’s denial of the appeal, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote, “Any reader of this court’s opinions should think that the doctrine is on its last gasp.”
When the court announced opinions at 10:00 a.m., it punted on one of the biggest cases on its current docket, which examined whether, and how, the Obama administration could require that contraception coverage be provided to women who work for religiously affiliated organizations.
After the court heard oral arguments in March, it tried to prod the two sides toward a compromise. Both the Obama administration and religious employers responded by refining their legal positions, but significant disagreements still remain. Now the litigants, and the lower courts, have to take another crack at resolving an issue that has proved elusive so far.
In another opinion Monday, the Supreme Court eked out a narrow decision in a closely watched business case involving people-search web site Spokeo Inc., though the ruling may not settle much.
At issue was a class-action lawsuit filed by plaintiff Thomas Robins, who sued Spokeo because its profile of him was inaccurate. Spokeo said Mr. Robins suffered no real harm and shouldn’t be allowed to sue.
The Supreme Court said a lower court didn’t properly analyze the case, but it didn’t say much more. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for a 6-2 majority, said a plaintiff must have a “concrete” injury to proceed with a lawsuit, but he said such injuries could take either tangible or intangible forms.
Given the legal uncertainty that remains in both the contraception and Spokeo litigation, future versions of those cases could come back to the Supreme Court. The justices likely hope that won’t happen until they are nine members strong.