News out of Washington about the Supreme Court is good. Justice Anthony Kennedy will serve at least one more term.
Why is such trivia good news? Because Justice Kennedy is the “swing” vote keeping the Roberts Court from reactionary rule.
Kennedy is 81. He has served 30 years on the Supreme Court and might well have retired. Fortunately, he didn’t.
Here are some cases his vote was crucial on major social issues:
• He has ruled for gay rights in general and legalizing same-sex marriage.
• Upholding federal law prohibiting discriminatory housing practices against racial minorities.
• Upholding a suit challenging the authority of state legislatures to gerrymander (drawing district lines for partisan advantage).
Justice Kennedy is a conservative. But Jesse Choper, Berkeley law professor, hails him as “the single most powerful public figure in America.”
True. The Supreme Court is enormously powerful. So Kennedy is particularly important with President Trump opposing abortion. Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s first appointment to the Supreme Court, has already dissented in a gay-rights case.
OBAMA ROBBED OF COURT CHOICE
As the New York Times wrote in a recent editorial:
“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stolen a Supreme Court seat from President Obama with the installation of Gorsuch. His theft preserved the court’s conservatism for many years to come.
“McConnell demolished long-standing Senate tradition of approving appointment of a highly qualified nominee, Merrick Garland. (Obama appointed Garland, a long-time federal appellate judge.”
Moreover, Trump could name many more reactionary justices—especially if elected to a second term.
The death of Justice Scalia on Feb. 13, 2016, left the court short-handed for 14 months. The result: many narrow rulings by the court and postponed decisions until the October term.
The 2016-17 session of the Supreme Court was unusually dull. Nevertheless, some important cases were decided.
In one, the court ruled that unwed fathers and mothers cannot be treated differently in determining whether their children can claim American citizenship. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the 6-3 majority, declared: “The gender line Congress drew is incompatible with the requirement that the government accord everyone equal protection of the laws.”
In another, the court refused to revive a restrictive North Carolina voting law that a federal appeals court struck down. The appellate court labeled it “an unconstitutional effort to target African Americans with surgical precision.”
An ACLU spokesman glowed, declaring “an ugly chapter in voter suppression is closing.”
The court also declined to hear a challenge by the National Rifle Association–under the Second Amendment–to a California law placing strict limits on carrying guns in public.
The court agreed to hear an appeal next term on the sport-betting ban. New Jersey permits betting on professional and amateur games. And why not? So-called college “amateurs” are thinly disguised pros.
Scotus also agreed to hear in the October term an appeal from a Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple. Any business, open to the public like bakeries, should not have constitutional protection for discrimination. It’s none of the baker’s business what the sexual preference of customers is.
FEDERAL COURTS FOIL TRUMP
The most important action of the federal courts this year was to stymie President Trump’s unconstitutional immigration plan.
The Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled 3-0 that the proposed plan was defective. It said the proposed travel ban against six Muslim nations cannot take effect. The panel declared that Trump offered no evidence that barring immigrants would protect the nation from terrorism.
Judges Michael Hawkins, Ronald Gould and Richard Paez handed down the ruling. All were appointed by Democratic presidents. A federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., reached the same conclusion.
The Supreme Court has been asked to review those two decisions during the October term, a session promising more important rulings because Trump is constantly proposing plans of doubtful constitutionality.
Another federal appeals court hammered Trump. It decried Trump’s suspension of the Environmental Protection Agency stoppage of methane emissions from new oil and gas wells. It ruled that the emissions caused air pollution.
One other Supreme Court decision dealt another blow to Trump. It made it hard to strip citizenship from naturalized American. It called revoking citizenship for making trivial mistakes in naturalization proceedings absurd. Several justices were indignant and incredulous over the Trump government’s hardline approach.
Many cases dealt with the likes of who-cares copyright law. But one trademark decision was important: a unanimous decision to permit the name Redskins attached to the Washington professional football team.
Misguided activists denounced the name as offensive. It is not. Team nicknames and mascots in college and high school are a part of football pageantry.
Moreover, In the case Justice Samuel Alito rightly called the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech “the bedrock principle of the Constitution.”
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. (firstname.lastname@example.org)