The Supreme Court announced on Friday that it will publish its final rulings for this term on Monday. Some significant cases, including the possibility the court will hand down a decision on the legality of President Trump’s travel ban, will be decided.
But Washington is rife with rumors and speculation about the future of Justice Anthony Kennedy and whether or not he will retire after the term. Kennedy is 80 years old and said to be seriously considering the idea of stepping down. If he did, it would set off the mother of all confirmation battles. Kennedy has been the all-important swing vote on the court, casting the pivotal fifth vote on legalizing same-sex sex marriage and upholding abortion rights.
Conservatives would dearly love to see one of their own replace him — which is why liberals are expected to mount a titanic battle to prevent that.
“As the court’s most important Justice — at the center of the institution’s ideological balance — Justice Kennedy’s ability to bridge the divide between left and right on critical issues such as the right to access abortion cannot be overstated,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center. “Replacing Justice Kennedy with a Trump nominee would almost certainly sound the death knell for Roe, just as candidate Trump promised during the 2016 campaign.”
But nine years later, he sided once again with the liberals on the court to strike down a Texas law that abortion rights supporters thought was the most strict nationwide. Without Kennedy’s vote, the law would have been allowed to go into effect, inspiring other states to pass similar legislation.
In the same term, Kennedy pivoted on the issue of affirmative action when he voted for the first time in favor of a race-conscious admissions plan at a public university.
After that term, former acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal said, “It is very much Justice Kennedy’s Court.”
“You can’t understand how important his affirmative action opinion is without understanding his earlier jurisprudence,” said Katyal. “For decades, he has been the court’s most eloquent voice on the need to be color blind — why he changed his mind is something historians will debate for decades.”
However, sometimes Kennedy voted with the four conservatives on the bench. It was Kennedy who penned the majority opinion in Citizens United v. FEC — striking down election spending limits for corporations and unions in support of individual candidates.
He’s also sided with the right side of the bench on issues such as gun control and voting rights. Kennedy joined Chief Justice John Roberts’ 2012 opinion, Shelby County V. Holder striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
And Kennedy sided with George W. Bush in the case that essentially decided the 2000 presidential election for the GOP candidate.
Liberals will do everything in their power to stop anyone President Trump nominates from taking his seat on the court. All of their pious, weepy rhetoric about the Constitution that we heard during the months that the Merrick Garland nomination lay fallow will be forgotten as they wage a ferocious fight to keep the seat vacant.
But in the end, they don’t have the votes in the Senate to stop the president from naming pretty much whomever he wishes.
Justice Neil Gorsuch has yet to put his imprint on the court and some of the cases that will be handed down Monday may give us an inkling of just how conservative he is.
On Nov. 30, with one seat on the court still vacant, the eight justices heard arguments in a Los Angeles case on whether noncitizens who face possible deportation can be held in jail indefinitely or instead have a right to a bond hearing after six months. The case, Jennings vs. Rodriguez, has taken on added importance in the Trump era, but the long delay may signal that the justices are split 4-4.
If so, the court may announce Monday that the case will be reheard in the fall, leaving it to new Justice Neil M. Gorsuch to cast the tie-breaking vote.
Also still pending, since January, is a California case that will decide whether a crime such as breaking into an empty home qualifies as a “crime of violence,” triggering automatic deportation, even for an immigrant who is a longtime legal resident. A ruling in Sessions vs. Dimaya could affect thousands of deportations
The third case, pending since February, is a closely watched border shooting. At issue in Hernandez vs. Mesa is whether a U.S. agent can be sued for fatally shooting a 15-year-old who was standing on the Mexican side of the border.
If Kennedy retires, the president could name a relatively young conservative judge. And at least one other aging liberal justice — Ruth Bader Ginsburg is mentioned most often — could also retire, giving President Trump the nearly unprecedented opportunity to shape the Supreme Court for a long time to come.
Elections have consequences.