Among the joys of late June, along with fine weather and happy children, is the annual opportunity to watch the Supreme Court close out its docket with a rush of last-minute rulings on the year’s toughest cases. It’s a grand national civics lesson that brings us together as few other events can do. It teaches us what issues most unite or divide us right now and which way the wind is blowing.
Besides, it’s fun. Everyone cheers their own side and heckles the other with a passion rivaling the Superbowl. And the heckling is as instructive as the rulings themselves. Court rulings tell us what ails the republic. The cheers tell us whether we care.
So what do we learn from this year’s Supreme Court wrapup? For starters, consider the four decisions handed down in the last two days of the term. The issues: abortion; unions and President Obama; contraception and President Obama; and unions.
Based on the public passions aroused by the decisions, here’s what we care about: reproduction and President Obama.
Here’s what we don’t care about: unions.
The two decisions issued on the second-to-last day were both unanimous, a fact that holds some fascinating lessons of its own. More on that later.
One case involved a Massachusetts law creating a 35-foot protest-free buffer zone around abortion clinics. The court, which has its own 250-foot buffer zone, decided unanimously that the abortion clinic buffer zone violates the First Amendment.
The next involved Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board. Like thousands of recess appointments over the centuries, these were intended to get around the Senate’s refusal to confirm presidential nominees the usual way, by voting. However, unlike most stalled appointments, which mean more work for other employees, stalling NLRB appointments left the board without a quorum and unable to enforce labor law. Which was the Republicans’ intention.
To prevent recess appointments over Christmas, the Senate held a series of phony sessions in which senators went home but pretended to be working. The justices decided unanimously that Obama’s appointments were phony because they weren’t made during a Senate recess, as the Constitution dictates, but during a phony Senate session. The Senate can make up phony stuff. Obama can’t.
The two decisions on the last day were traditional 5-to-4 splits, five conservative justices against four liberals. In reality, they weren’t too different from the previous unanimous decisions. More on that later as well.
One case involved Hobby Lobby, a corporation whose owners refuse to give their employees health insurance covering certain birth-control methods mandated under Obamacare. They believe those methods resemble abortion, which their religion forbids. The court ruling, written by Justice Samuel Alito, essentially said they’re entitled to their beliefs, and they’re entitled to pretend that their corporation shares those beliefs. Alito dismissed any comparison between the government’s “compelling interest” in guaranteeing contraception coverage, despite religious objections, and any other compelling interests that might raise religious objections, like preventing racial discrimination or collecting taxes. Those others are really compelling interests. The Obamacare thing is about, you know, abortion. That’s different.