WASHINGTON — In several recent rulings, the Supreme Court unexpectedly awarded victories to liberal advocates on election law, minority voting rights and Native American issues, but all three rulings were inconclusive.
That means contentious issues could go back to the conservative-majority court, and based on what some of the justices have said, the outcome next time could be very different.
The rulings have sparked a debate about whether certain judges are wary of issuing too many sweeping rulings that move the law sharply to the right, possibly in response to claims that the court risks losing its legitimacy by being seen as a partisan institution.
«Overall, this term sounds like the court is working hard to find as much consensus as possible by resolving cases in a limited way, leaving for the future larger issues underlying those cases,» said Rick Pildes, a professor at the University of NY. The law’s school.
Rick Hasen, an election law expert at UCLA Law School, said voting rights and election cases are «time bombs» because of what was left undecided.
The court still has important cases to decide in the coming days on affirmative action on college admissions and President Joe Biden’s student loan debt relief plan, with more rulings expected to be released Thursday. Few expect the liberals to prevail in such cases.
Those losses may dwarf the victories the liberals have already won.
On Tuesday, the court handed a decisive defeat to Republican advocates for broad support for a fringe legal theory that would give state legislatures nearly unlimited powers over election regulation.
But the 6-3 vote obscured further divisions on the court, suggesting that in a later case, the court could overturn state court rulings on election law issues.
Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice John Roberts said state courts do not have «free rein» in election matters, which means there are situations where federal courts could step in.
In the ballot case decided on June 8, the vote was 5-4 in rejecting an effort to further weaken the landmark Voting Rights Act in an Alabama congressional redistricting case.
Conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the majority, but wrote separately that his vote did not rule out challenges to the provision in question based on whether there is a time when the 1965 law’s authorization of consideration of race in redistricting is no longer justified.
The June 15 ruling rejecting constitutional challenges to the Indian Child Welfare Act, a 1978 law enacted to keep Native American children within tribes, followed the same pattern.
It was a 7-2 vote, but the court, in a ruling authored by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, did not decide the key question of whether the law discriminates on the basis of race by giving preferences to Native American families during the eligibility process. adoption. .
The challengers have already said they will pursue their racial discrimination claims in the lower courts.
The three rulings come at a key time for the court as it publishes the final decisions of its nine-month term while under intense public scrutiny.
Most court watchers expect the Liberal winning streak to come to a halt in the final days of the term. Ending affirmative action has been a conservative cause for decades, while the student loan plan plays into the often-voiced concern of conservative justices about presidents overreaching their authority without explicit authorization from Congress.
But even if the court ends affirmative action and eliminates the student loan program, the rulings in which liberal lawyers surprisingly prevailed mark a stark contrast to the last term.
Conservative justices then handed down a series of maximalist rulings that ended abortion rights, expanded gun rights, reduced the federal government’s power to combat climate change and undermined the separation of church and state.
Subsequently, some prominent figures, including members of the court, questioned whether he risked losing his legitimacy by radically redoing the law at such a rapid pace.
“When courts become extensions of the political process, when people see them as extensions of the political process, when people see them simply as trying to impose personal preferences on society, regardless of the law, that’s when there’s a problem.” said the liberal judge Elena. Kagan said at a public appearance last September.
The court’s more cautious approach in some cases this term may indicate that some justices have taken Kagan’s warning to heart. There have also been a higher percentage of unanimous rulings and only two so far where the court split 6-3 on ideological lines.
Roberts, in particular, has shown a longstanding commitment to bolstering the court’s legitimacy by making more limited decisions on at least some issues. Last summer, he was the only conservative judge who did not vote to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade.
«I think Chief Justice Roberts is probably concerned that the Supreme Court is seen as a results-driven agent of chaos,» said Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at Chicago-Kent Law School.
Kavanaugh has at times been an ally of the Chief Justice. He provided the fifth casting vote in the voting rights case.
But in all three cases where liberals prevailed, Kavanaugh wrote his own opinion that would give conservative activists cause for optimism in future cases.
«He wants to leave that possibility open,» Shapiro said.