Some effects of Supreme Court rulings felt at once, others take years

McClatchy Washington BureauJune 27, 2013 


Justice Antonin Scalia


— Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia got it right. As the conservative jurist noted again this week, the court plants seeds with every decision, sometimes regardless of assurances to the contrary.

And though the Supreme Court’s 2012 term ended with a flourish Wednesday, the 78 rulings issued since last October will shape the legal and political landscape for years to come.

“It is just a matter of listening and waiting for the other shoe,” Scalia wrote of the consequences of a court decision.

Scalia was speaking specifically about how striking down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act will embolden legal efforts to challenge bans on same-sex marriage. More broadly, though, his words apply to the far-flung fallout from any case.

As a result of this past term, colleges and universities may be refining how they use race in admissions decisions. Police will swab DNA from suspects more freely. States won’t be imposing proof-of-citizenship requirements on potential voters.

Sometimes, this fallout arises from a seemingly straightforward opinion, of which there are many. Forty-nine percent of the court’s rulings this term were decided unanimously, according to statistics compiled by SCOTUSblog, a blog about the Supreme Court of the United States and its rulings. The decisions include a ruling that naturally occurring human genes may not be patented, a decision whose consequences are immediately obvious.

Other seemingly easy cases will take longer to ripen.

The Supreme Court, for instance, ruled 9-0 that California raisin growers may claim in U.S. District Court that an industry marketing order’s demand for money or part of the crop could amount to a taking of property. In the short run, the ruling empowers Fresno-area raisin grower Marvin D. Horne in his fight against an industry-run group authorized to regulate the raisin trade.

Longer term, the decision might enable other industries to more readily fight regulatory fines.

The rule “could have broad consequences for parties seeking to challenge unconstitutional monetary fines and penalties, given the nearly infinite variety of ways in which government actions or regulations can affect property interests,” the U.S. Chamber of Commerce noted in a legal brief.

Other times, it’s the closest cases that cause the biggest impact. This term, 29 percent of the decisions came on 5-4 votes. Some consequences from these closely decided cases erupted quickly.

In Texas, the court’s striking down Tuesday of a key section of the Voting Rights Act prompted state Attorney General Greg Abbott to declare that the state’s controversial voter-identification law would take effect immediately.

In California, state officials say county clerks will begin issuing same-sex marriage licenses once a federal appeals court lifts a previous order. This might come within days, after the Supreme Court’s decision Wednesday effectively striking down Proposition 8, the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriages in the state.

Other consequences take longer to unfold.

In a Texas case 10 years ago, the court struck down a state law that banned homosexual sodomy. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision, indicated then that “it does not involve whether the government must give formal recognition to any relationship that homosexual persons seek to enter.”

Scalia knew better.

“Do not believe it,” Scalia wrote of Kennedy’s assurances in his June 26, 2003, dissent. “This case ‘does not involve’ the issue of homosexual marriage only if one entertains the belief that principle and logic have nothing to do with the decisions of this court.”

Sure enough, the reasoning in the 2003 Texas case strengthened same-sex marriage advocates in the years that followed. And on Wednesday, Kennedy cited the 2003 opinion twice in his decision striking down part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which banned same-sex couples from obtaining federal benefits. Kennedy further said the reasoning was confined to same-sex couples who were married in states that permit it.

Scalia, who led other justices with 11 dissents this term, is again skeptical. On Wednesday, the longest-serving justice on the current court predicted that the majority’s Defense of Marriage Act reasoning will be an “inevitable” foundation for efforts to challenge the 36 states that ban same-sex marriage.

Sometimes, Supreme Court decisions spur legislative action.

In June 2012, calling it an infringement on free speech, the court struck down a federal law that made it a crime to lie about receiving military medals. Several weeks ago, President Barack Obama signed a rewritten version of the law; it now targets those who lie about military medals with the intention of profiting.

On Wednesday, hoping for similar success, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., led 40 other senators in introducing a bill to repeal a Defense of Marriage Act provision that the Supreme Court left untouched. A similar measure was introduced with 161 House of Representatives co-sponsors, but conservatives will fight this, leaving the prospects in doubt.

“Congress passed the Defense of Marriage Act on an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, stressed Wednesday. “It is my hope that states will define marriage as the union between one man and one woman.”

Sometimes the Supreme Court injects specific warnings into rulings, which lawmakers ignore at their peril.

On Tuesday, the court struck down a centerpiece of the Voting Rights Act, which provided the formula for determining when states and localities require prior Justice Department approval for making political changes. The 5-4 decision was foreshadowed in a 2009 case from Texas, when justices urged Congress to fix an outdated voting-rights formula.

“Congress could have updated the coverage formula at that time, but did not do so,” Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote in the decision this week. “Its failure to act leaves us today with no choice but to declare (part of it) unconstitutional.”

Email:; Twitter: @MichaelDoyle10

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