How the Deadlocked Supreme Court Has Helped Liberals

September 4th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

The U.S. Supreme Court remains in a state of judicial limbo as Senate Republicans refuse to take action on President Barack Obama's SCOTUS nominee, Merrick Garland. But you might be surprised to find that the deadlock has actually served liberal interests in unexpected ways.

Picture of the Supreme Court

Justice Antonin Scalia, you'll recall, died in February, leaving the court one justice short of a full bench of nine. As a result, several critical rulings — on matters ranging from reproductive health to voting rights — have resulted in 4-4 tie votes recently.

Such ties effectively uphold the ruling of a lower court (without setting any kind of precedent), according to Slate. Here are four examples of how such rulings have benefited Democrats.

1. Unions got a boost.


Conservative Justice Scalia's absence was felt acutely in the Supreme Court case Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association in March. The case challenged the ability of unions to collect money for collective bargaining activities from public employees who chose not to join unions.

Scalia had been historically hostile to unions, but without him, the court deadlocked and left standing a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the requirement that the objecting teachers pay fees, the Times reported. That represented a victory for a group that tends to align with, and provide support for, Democrats.

2. Restrictive voter ID laws took a hit.


Another 4-4 Supreme Court split — this time concerning a series of restrictive voter ID laws in North Carolina — blocked an attempt by state lawmakers to overturn a lower-court decision invalidating voting requirements that were deemed discriminatory.

Lawmakers had asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a series of provisions, including "a tightening in voter ID requirements, cutbacks on early voting, and the preregistration of 16-year-olds," CNN reported. The Supreme Court's 4-4 deadlock stopped that effort.

3. Liberals avoided an unfavorable SCOTUS precedent on immigration.


The Supreme Court split on a case that challenged the constitutionality of President Obama's push to protect up to 5 million immigrants from deportation, upholding a lower-court ruling that blocked the program. That came as a disappointment to the Obama administration.

But had Scalia been around to weigh in, it's almost certain that SCOTUS would have set a judicial precedent that could've blocked future efforts to influence deportation policy for the foreseeable future. As it stands now, the Supreme Court is free to revisit the issue once it has a full complement of justices.

4. Anticipating a divided Supreme Court, lower courts feel emboldened.

This certainly swings both ways — benefiting liberal and conservative-minded lower courts alike — but, as Esquire's Charles Pierce noted, "The lower levels of the federal courts have been extraordinarily active in knocking down laws beloved of the conservative governors and state legislatures that have passed them" in recent months. The expectation is that controversial cases will result in a 4-4 tie, leaving the lower court rulings intact. For now.

Pierce continued:

"They have done so in areas ranging from reproductive freedom to voting rights. It likely is no coincidence that this all occurred after Antonin Scalia shuffled off to Originalist Heaven, leaving the Supreme Court skating one player down, and virtually guaranteeing a 4-4 split on contentious issues like abortion and the right to vote."

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