What Happens When the Supreme Court is Deadlocked?

The unfilled seat on the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) following Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in February 2016 has an indeterminate effect on the remaining cases to be decided this term. Those cases are: 

*This case will be decided by seven members of SCOTUS, because Justice Kagan has recused herself.

**SCOTUS in a deadlocked 4 to 4 decision affirmed the appeals court’s decision favoring the unions but setting no precedent.

Article III of the United States Constitution and the Judiciary Act of 1789; vest the powers of which SCOTUS has the authority to interpret law throughout the United States. Prior to 1869, the numbers of members, justices, sitting on the Court fluctuated from five to ten, until Congress set the size to nine members. Of the 112 justices who have served on the Court, nine have died while still holding office.

In the absence of a ninth justice, when deadlock decisions ensue, SCOTUS may choose for automatic affirmation of the lower court’s decision or may choose to set aside the case for re-argument in the new term. With the sensitivity of the above pending decisions and the upcoming presidential elections in November 2016, the unfilled seat on SCOTUS may remain unoccupied until following the inauguration of the 45th president.

Tom Goldstein, attorney and publisher on the SCOTUSblog, appeals to historical precedent which favors the Court ordering cases be re-argued once a new justice is confirmed. Goldstein believes the practice of holding re-argument is important for the kinds of cases above.

Case in point, a petition for rehearing was filed on April 8, 2016, following the first deadlocked decision since the death of Justice Scalia in the public unions case of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Other cases yet to be decided include the safety standards for abortion case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, the contraception mandate case of Zubik v. Burwell, and the immigration case of United States v. Texas,  all of which could result in deadlocked decisions. Deadlocked decisions stay SCOTUS’ ability to issue one clear decision and to set new historical precedent.

As Christ-followers we have to ask, do we want to be well-versed on what is occurring and  which cases are setting historical precedent? One may argue we should, as all cases heard by a full Court influence the future of our society, and any unfavorable decisions may considerably impact how for example in the three pending cases above, we are actually able to protect and value the newly created human lives from conception to birth, and interact with and legally recognize immigrants.  

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