I never got a chance to write about the end of the Supreme Court term. Different commentators have called the term “historic.” Given the major decisions at the end of term
- extending same-sex marriage to all states (Obergefell v. Hodges),
- upholding the exchange provisions of the Affordable Care Act (King v. Burwell),
- allowing the use of certain drugs in carrying out the death penalty (Glossip v. Gross),
- allowing states to use independent commissions to draw legislative districts (Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Comm’n),
and a few others, this term provided more controversy than previous terms. The dissents were fast and furious, with emphasis on the furious.
Justice Scalia observed in the King case:
Under all the usual rules of interpretation, in short, the Government should lose this case. But normal rules of interpretation seem always to yield to the overriding principle of the present Court: The Affordable Care Act must be saved.
And that was one of the nicer passages. He concluded with:
Perhaps the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will attain the enduring status of the Social Security Act or the Taft-Hartley Act; perhaps not. But this Court’s two decisions on the Act will surely be remembered through the years. The somersaults of statutory interpretation they have performed (“penalty” means tax, “further [Medicaid] payments to the State” means only incremental Medicaid payments to the State, “established by the State” means not established by the State) will be cited by litigants endlessly, to the confusion of honest jurisprudence. And the cases will publish forever the discouraging truth that the Supreme Court of the United States favors some laws over others, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to uphold and assist its favorites.
Justice Scalia called the Court a threat to democracy in his dissent in the Obergefell case. He further stated:
Those civil consequences—and the public approval that conferring the name of marriage evidences—can perhaps have adverse social effects, but no more adverse than the effects of many other controversial laws. So it is not of special importance to me what the law says about marriage. It is of overwhelming importance, however, who it is that rules me. Today’s decree says that my Ruler, and the Ruler of 320 million Americans coast-to-coast, is a majority of the nine lawyers on the Supreme Court. The opinion in these cases is the furthest extension in fact—and the furthest extension one can even imagine—of the Court’s claimed power to create “liberties” that the Constitution and its Amendments neglect to mention. This practice of constitutional revision by an unelected committee of nine, always accompanied (as it is today) by extravagant praise of liberty, robs the People of the most important liberty they asserted in the Declaration of Independence and won in the Revolution of 1776: the freedom to govern themselves.
Justice Thomas wrote in his dissent in the Arizona redistricting case:
The ballot initiative in this case, unlike those that the Court has previously treated so dismissively, was unusually democracy reducing. It did not ask the people to approve a particular redistricting plan through direct democracy, but instead to take districting away from the people’s representatives and give it to an unelected committee, thereby reducing democratic control over the process in the future. The Court’s characterization of this as direct democracy at its best is rather like praising a plebiscite in a “banana republic” that installs a strongman as President for Life. And wrapping the analysis in a cloak of federalism does little to conceal the flaws in the Court’s reasoning.
It’s almost as if the two Justices took personal offence at the outcome of each case.
There is no doubt that several of the cases the Court decided were highly charged political issues where the outcome did not end the debate. Roy Moore, Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, was very displeased with the same-sex marriage decision. The Oklahoma legislature is doing its best to opt out of Obamacare despite the ruling in King.
The Court, in theory, never acts politically—in theory. There are multiple stories suggesting that the Chief Justice is solidifying his legacy with successive rulings upholding the ACA. Gallup reports that the reaction to the Court is dramatically split over political lines. The Court’s job approval rating by Republicans is 18%. Democrats, on the other hand, give the Court a 76% rating. Further polls show that support for same-sex marriage is stable after the Obergefell decision with 58% of the population in support. A majority of Democrats support same-sex marriage at 74% while Republicans are opposed at 67%. Politics and society have become more and more polarized over the years where it seems to be the norm at this point. I personally regret that this is creeping into the Supreme Court.