Some recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court must be disturbing to the ugly underbelly of the Republican Party that thought the appointment of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Court assured them of victory on a number of issues not popular with the larger public. Some have viewed the Court's actions as a way to preserve its popular respect and legitimacy even if some of the issues will likely come back before it in the future. How the Court rules on the Trump/Pence regime effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census - which is designed to cause an under count of non-citizens in mostly blue states - will be telling as to whether self-preservation remains the Courts guiding hallmark. A column in the Washington Post looks at recent rulings that in the wake of the Virginia redistricting decision against Virginia Republicans have avoided hot button issues and punted them back to the lower courts. Here are column excerpts:
The justices of the Supreme Court know how to keep out of trouble. That’s the takeaway from the order the court issued on Monday, sending back to the lower court a new case about another baker who wouldn’t bake a wedding cake.The case, Klein v. Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries, was a near-exact replica of last year’s Masterpiece Cakeshop case. Like the owner of that Colorado bakery, the husband and wife owners of Sweetcakes by Melissa in Gresham, Ore., claimed that their religion prohibited them from designing and baking a cake to be used in celebrating a same-sex marriage. To do so, the owners explained in their petition to the Supreme Court, would amount to “complicity in sin.” In fact, they said, the very reason they baked wedding cakes was to “celebrate weddings between one man and one woman.”
Like Colorado, Oregon has a public accommodations law that bars business from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation. Acting on the complaint of a lesbian couple, the official in charge of enforcing that law imposed a $135,000 fine to be paid to the couple as “compensatory damages for emotional, mental and physical suffering.” The Oregon Court of Appeals upheld the order, and the Oregon Supreme Court refused to hear the appeal.
On Monday, instead of adding the case to their docket, the justices vacated the lower-court decision and told the Oregon Court of Appeals to reconsider the case “in light of” last June’s Masterpiece Cakeshop decision. Objectively, that disposition makes little sense. The Supreme Court didn’t actually decide the constitutional issues in Masterpiece Cakeshop. . . . The decision was, in other words, a punt. It has no “light” to shed on the Oregon dispute.
I think that what finally prevailed was an institutional instinct for self-preservation. Why re-enter this battle at this moment? Cases granted this spring will be argued in the fall, to be decided next spring with the political season at its height and the court itself under a bright election-year spotlight. The court already has plenty to do next term, with three cases granted on whether federal law protects gay and transgender people against discrimination on the job. The conflict between private conscience and public duty is age-old. The court has time to resolve it in future cases. In fact, another such case will soon be on the way to the Supreme Court. This month, the Washington State Supreme Court reinstated a ruling against a flower shop owner who, because of her “relationship with Jesus Christ,” told a gay couple, longtime customers, that she could not design a flower arrangement for their wedding. The justices had vacated that ruling and sent the case back to the state court last summer for reconsideration in light of Masterpiece Cakeshop. The state court, deeming Masterpiece Cakeshop irrelevant, reissued its original opinion almost word for word.
What I discern as the Supreme Court’s instinct for self-preservation was also on display last month in an abortion case from Indiana. The state was appealing a ruling that invalidated its law banning abortions for reasons of the race, sex or disability of the fetus, a law enacted in deliberate and flagrant violation of existing abortion precedents. The state’s appeal, Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, went to conference an astonishing 15 times over five months. Ultimately, the court denied the appeal, noting in an unsigned opinion that because the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit is the only court to have considered such a law, “we follow our ordinary practice of denying petitions insofar as they raise legal issues that have not been considered by additional Courts of Appeals.”
On a court deeply divided on the subject of abortion, that disposition was unanimous. . . . If I read that message correctly, we can expect the same outcome when the states that are now busy banning abortion appeal to the Supreme Court from the lower-court rulings that will inevitably strike down the new laws. (But to be precise, my prediction holds only until Election Day 2020, when the justices will be free from whatever constraint they now feel about taking a step likely to incite a public backlash against the Republican Party.)
These reflections on the court’s instinct for self-preservation lead me to a final question: What to do about the census case? As the world knows, the deeply contested question of the validity of the Trump administration’s plan to ask about citizenship has become even more fraught with revelations from the computer files of a recently deceased Republican redistricting specialist, Thomas Hofeller. The documents appear to validate the conclusion reached by Federal District Judge Jesse Furman, whose ruling against the Trump administration is before the justices, that the administration’s purported good-government reason for adding the citizenship question was a pretext. The real reason, the documents indicate, was to provide a statistical basis for entrenching Republican power by disregarding noncitizens in the population counts for future redistricting.
Those plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, have now asked the justices for a “limited remand” that would send the case back to the District Court “to allow exploration of where the truth lies.”
But there is another option, suggested by the plaintiffs in a final footnote to their latest brief: Just dismiss the appeal. The procedure is known as a DIG: “dismissed as improvidently granted.” The justices use it once or twice a term, usually when a case turns out, on further reflection, not to be what they thought it was when they granted it.
For the time being, it’s a reminder that the court knows how to get itself out of a tight spot when it needs to. A DIG requires no explanation. Its effect is to wipe the Supreme Court slate clean, as if the appeal had never even reached the court. A DIG here would leave Judge Furman’s opinion in place and would enable the professionals in the Census Bureau, who strongly objected to adding the citizenship question, free to go about their business counting us — all of us. If I’m right about these recent signals that the court knows how to save itself, now is the time.
The out come of the census case will be telling and clearly signal whether the Court puts its own legitimacy ahead of all else.