Vacancy on Supreme Court already impacts high-profile cases

A crowd watches as the body of the late Justice Antonin Scalia is taken into the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on February 19, 2016. Photo by Indianz.Com

The vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court is creating uncertainty in some high-profile cases.

On Tuesday, the justices deadlocked 4-4 in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. That means a lower court ruling that forces public school teachers to pay fees to unions they haven't joined.

The court could have moved to rehear the case with all nine members, as some observers suggested would happen following the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. He was likely to have ruled against the unions and his vote could have resolved the dispute once and for all.

Lawyers involved in the case told SCOTUSBlog that they will file a rehearing petition in hopes of securing finality.

On a second matter, the justices appear deadlocked in a series of cases that will determine whether religious non-profits must provide coverage under the Affordable Care Act that includes access to contraception. They already heard the dispute but they issued an order issued on Tuesday seeking more briefs.

The order asks whether employees of non-profits could still gain access to contraceptives "but in a way that does not require any involvement" of the non-profits, who claim that providing such coverage goes against their religious beliefs.


Native women rallied on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court as the justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, a tribal jurisdiction case, on December 7, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

Having a ninth member would help the court avoid uncertainties but Republicans in the Senate are refusing to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland. They want to wait until the outcome of the November election rather than confirm someone chosen by President Barack Obama.

The court has one decision pending in an Indian law case. The justices heard Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians on December 7, 2015 and Indian law advocates said the case was too tough to call even with Scalia on board.

The outcome will determine whether the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians can exercise jurisdiction over Dollar General. The company claims it cannot be forced to answer to a lawsuit in tribal court even though it operates a store on the reservation through a lease with the tribe.

The high court's last tribal jurisdiction case was Plains Commerce Bank v. Long from 2008. It was decided by a 5-4 vote.

"Any further delay in filling this vacancy could result in split decisions with serious implications for the nation and for Indian Country, such as with the Dollar General Corporation v. Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians case," President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation said last week.

Get the Story:
Court seeks new way to decide birth-control cases (SCOTUSBlog 3/29)
Opinion analysis: Result but no guidance on public unions’ fees (SCOTUSBlog 3/29)
Reality of a divided Supreme Court: A split decision and a search for compromise (The Washington Post 3/29)
Justices deadlock on public-employee-union case; Calif. teachers must pay dues (The Washington Post 3/29)
Victory for Unions as Supreme Court, Scalia Gone, Ties 4-4 (The New York Times 3/30)
Supreme Court Hints at Way to Avert Tie on Birth Control Mandate (The New York Times 3/30)
Republican Senator Meets With Garland, and Urges Colleagues to Follow (The New York Times 3/30)
Democrats See Split Supreme Court Decision as a New Tool to Fill Vacancy (The New York Times 3/30)

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