Yesterday evening, the Supreme Court by a 5:4 vote rejected a church’s challenge to Nevada’s latest COVID-19 shutdown orders. The vote split on ideological lines, with Chief Justice Roberts swinging toward his more-liberal colleagues. Churches are now 0-2 in the Supreme Court on emergency challenges to a state’s COVID-19 shutdown guidelines.
The Supreme Court has a new mixed drink: it’s five parts formalism to four parts functionalism, with a splash of Humphrey’s Executor. This new drink was on full display in Seila Law LLC v. CFPB, in which five Justices concluded that Congress violated the separation of powers when it placed limits on the President’s power to fire the CFPB’s director. Those five Justices used what’s called the “formalist” approach, prevailing over the competing “functionalist” approach adopted by the four dissenting Justices. Throughout history, the Court has oscillated between formalism and functionalism, especially in cases involving the President’s power to remove public officials. For the latter half of the 20th century, functionalism appeared to be the dominant approach to removal-power cases—until two recent decisions from the Roberts court. Might formalism now be seeing a resurgence?
The Supreme Court’s term has now come to a close. The Court decided its last seven cases this week, capturing headlines and filling margins across the country. It handed President Trump an 0-1-1 record on his tax returns, ruling against him on the New York subpoena and sending the Congressional subpoena back to the lower court. It ruled that, for the purposes of the Major Crimes Act, the vast majority of eastern Oklahoma is Creek “Indian country” (yes, you read that right). It ruled against “faithless electors.” It rejected a procedural challenge to the Trump administration’s new religious exemptions to Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate. And it struck down an exception to the federal ban on robocalls. At the center of it all was Chief Justice John Roberts, now the Court’s anchor and swing Justice, who voted with the majority in 58 of the term’s 60 cases (a 97% clip). Here is your final weekly brief for O.T. 2019.
Faithless no more! said the Supreme Court in Chiafalo v. Washington on Monday. The Court unanimously held that the Constitution allows a state to force its members of the Electoral College to vote according to that state’s popular vote. The case arose during the 2016 presidential election when three of Washington’s electors voted “faithlessly.” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won Washington’s 12 electoral votes, and each of Washington’s 12 electors had pledged to cast their votes for Clinton. But when the time came, three of the twelve violated their pledges, casting their votes for Colin Powell. Washington promptly removed the three electors from their posts and find each $1,000. The electors challenged their fines, claiming that the Constitution allows them to vote however they please. The Court rejected that claim, giving us all a bit more faith in our constitutional republic.
In an historic decision yesterday, Chief Justice Roberts held for a 7:2 majority that a sitting president isn’t absolutely immune from a state grand jury subpoena seeking the president’s private documents, and that a state prosecutor need not show a “heightened need” for such documents. It is a resounding legal defeat for President Trump, who had challenged the authority of a state district attorney to subpoena Trump’s personal and corporate financial records. But the decision may be a political win; more likely than not, Trump will be able to stave off the release of his tax records until after the November election. Here is a recap of the Court’s decision in Trump v. Vance.
Fides et ratio, or “faith and reason,” was the penultimate encyclical of Pope John Paul II. He argued that faith and reason do—and must—go hand in hand. Doubtless, among those who would agree with this principle are the Montana parents who sued in Espinoza v. Montana Dept. of Revenue to send their children to parochial schools after winning tax-credit-funded scholarships. At first, the parents lost; the Montana Supreme Court invalidated the entire scholarship program. Last week, however, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision by a 5:4 vote, concluding that it violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to strike down the program under a version of the Blaine Amendment in the Montana state constitution. Here’s my analysis.
For the first time since 1996, the Supreme Court’s term has officially extended into the month of July. The Court decided five cases this week, touching on abortion, free speech, religious liberty, administrative agencies, and copyright law. It also added four cases to next term’s docket, one of which concerns the release of grand jury materials from Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Here’s a recap of the Court’s busy week.
Last Monday, the Supreme Court in June Medical Services, L.L.C. v. Russo struck down a Louisiana abortion law as unconstitutional. Abortion always makes for a blockbuster topic at the high court, but this decision was about as narrow as it could have been. The case hinged entirely on the vote of Chief Justice Roberts, whose opinion rested on an extraordinary application of stare decisis. What does this mean for Louisiana and, more importantly, future abortion cases at the Court? Read more to find out:
This week was relatively quiet, especially as the Court nears the end of its term. The Justices decided just two cases: Liu v. SEC (an arcane securities law case) and DHS v. Thuraissigiam (challenging asylum denials in court). They didn’t grant any new cases. Court-watchers enjoyed a brief lull after the tumultuous Title VII and DACA decisions last week, but that lull won’t last long. We’re the unguarded tree in the photo above, facing an impending deluge of 13 major decisions to be handed down over the next few weeks. So as we await the Court’s decisions in matters concerning abortion, Trump’s tax returns, religious liberty, Obamacare, free speech, and the Electoral College (among others), there’s just one thing to say: I hope you enjoyed the calm before the storm.
Last week, Justice Gorsuch held that Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act outlaws workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. To some it was gold leaf, a vindication of the decades-long fight for gay and transgender rights. To others it was blasphemy, an abdication of the constitutional duty of a judge. But leaving politics aside, it highlights a debate over one of the central theories of statutory interpretation: textualism. Both Gorsuch in the majority and Alito in dissent claim textualism is on their side. The fact that they come to dueling interpretations of a one-sentence statute suggests that textualism will yield unpredictable outcomes in statutory interpretation cases for years to come, irrespective of the typical “conservative” and “liberal” labels given to each of the Justices. Here is my analysis of Bostock v. Clayton County.