The United States Supreme Court ended its current term on Monday with some important decisions, but University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris said the most important event of the term was not an opinion at all.
“It’s definitely the departure and death of Justice (Antonin) Scalia,” Harris said. “This has colored pretty much everything from that day forward.”
Given that the Senate has refused to act to fill the vacancy, four votes have resulted in ties. In those cases, the rulings of lower courts stand.
“That is just limiting the Supreme Court’s ability go get some of these issues resolved and to move forward,” Harris said. “There’s no precedential value in these tie votes.”
The even number of justices has led to some interesting results, Harris said, including Zubik v. Burwell — which would have decided whether or not religious nonprofits are required to provide contraceptive coverage to their employees under the Affordable Care Act.
“It’s the most bizarre thing I’ve ever read,” Harris said. “Justice Kennedy kind of saying ‘Here, take this back lower courts and see if you can come up with something better. And we think the parties should sort of compromise.’”
Harris also had strong words for the court’s decision in Utah v. Strieff — which determined that outstanding warrants could be used to justify evidence obtained during an illegal stop. The decision reversed the rulings of lower courts in Utah.
“I think this is one of the worst decisions that the court made this entire term,” Harris said. “I think they’re going to regret this for a long time.”
He said the ruling will have consequences for millions of people with outstanding warrants on minor violations and has the potential to increase racial profiling.
“This will be a power that will be begging for abuse,” Harris said. “It’s out there to be used and abused anytime a police officer wants to do it.”
The court upheld the affirmative action plan in place at the University of Texas, determining that it didn’t violate the constitution’s equal protection clause. The decision hinged on race being considered as only one of many factors the University of Texas uses when assessing applications.
Harris said the issue has effectively been put to rest, but Anthony Kennedy’s vote with the majority was surprising.
“He’s never joined an opinion on the court in which affirmative action in higher education is supported,” Harris said. “He’s always been against it.”
The court overturned corruption charges against Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell in a ruling that Harris said will limit the federal government’s ability to prosecute government corruption going forward.
“It will effectively shield a lot of state-level government corruption from federal oversight,” Harris said.
The governor introduced a supporter to some influential people in exchange for campaign donations. The court ruled that because the introductions weren’t an official government action, it did not fall under the federal government’s definition of corruption.
“Just introducing him to somebody or helping him make an appointment with a regulator … those things aren’t official actions,” Harris said.
On Monday, the court upheld a statute banning citizens convicted of domestic violence from owning guns, which was notable given congress’s recent failure to limit gun ownership. Harris said the decision builds on the 2008 Heller case, which established the individual’s right to own a gun for self defense but left room for regulation.
“The people who have taken an absolutist position on the second amendment often miss the fact that in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions, (including Heller), the court said there can be reasonable regulation,” Harris said.
A case examining the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action of Parents for Americans, a program that would protect undocumented parents of American citizens, also ended in a stalemate.
“For all intents and purposes, that immigration plan is dead for the remainder of this presidential term,” Harris said.
The course also rejected a challenge to the traditional interpretation of the one person one vote rule, which Harris said prevented the shift of political power from cities to rural areas.
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David Harris is also the author of the podcast Criminal Injustice, produced by 90.5 WESA.