Justice Scalia’s Passing to Affect Supreme Court Decisions on Puerto Rico
SAN JUAN – The passing of Justice Antonin Scalia affects the cases now before the Court, including two very important cases involving Puerto Rico.
Votes that Scalia cast in cases that have not been publicly decided are void. “Of course, if Justice Scalia’s vote was not necessary to the outcome – for example, if he was in the dissent or if the majority included more than five Justices – then the case will still be decided, only by an eight-member Court,” according to U.S. Supreme Court web log SCOTUSblog.
If Scalia was part of a five-justice majority in a case – for example, the Friedrichs case, in which the court was expected to limit mandatory union contributions – the court is now divided four to four. In those cases, there is no majority for a decision and the lower court’s ruling stands as if the Supreme Court had never heard the case. “Because it is very unlikely that a replacement will be appointed this term, we should expect to see a number of such cases in which the lower court’s decision is “affirmed by an equally divided Court,” the publication says.
Other significant cases in which the court may now be equally divided include Evenwel v. Abbott (on the meaning of the “one person, one vote” guarantee), the cases challenging the accommodation for religious organizations under the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate, and the challenge to the Obama administration’s immigration policy.
The Court is also of course hearing a significant abortion case, involving multiple restrictions adopted by Texas.
Conversely, the Court was likely to limit affirmative action in public higher education in the Fisher case. But because only three of the liberal justices are participating (Justice Kagan is recused), conservatives would retain a narrow majority, the publication said.
There is also recent precedent for the court to attempt to avoid issuing a number of equally divided rulings. “In Chief Justice Roberts’ first term, the court in similar circumstances decided a number of significant cases by instead issuing relatively unimportant, often procedural decisions. It is unclear if the justices will take the same approach in any of this term’s major, closely divided cases,” according to SCOTUSblog.
In the case of Puerto Rico v. Sánchez Valle, eight justices are now slated to evaluate the case. If the decision is four to four, the local Supreme Court will prevail. In the case on the legality of Puerto Rico’s Debt Enforcement Act, a decision could be four to three because Justice Samuel Alito is abstaining from the vote.
Scalia died over the weekend in Texas of a heart attack, according to reports.
Within a few hours following his death, it became abundantly clear that, first, President Obama will nominate a successor and try to get the Senate’s approval, but the GOP leadership in the upper chamber say they will try to block any such nominee. The matter would then become an election issue. SCOTUSblog mentions that Attorney General Loretta Lynch is likely to be the nominee.