WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — The U.S. Supreme Court gaveled itself into recess this week, heading into a three-month summer break.
Some of the justices will hit the lecture circuit. Others will pen books. And Justice Clarence Thomas will likely jump in his RV and set out on his annual road trip.
With the tumultuous 2015-2016 term now in the record books, we take a look back on the seven most consequential SCOTUS moments this year.
1. Justice Scalia death
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death during a February hunting trip immediately threw the high court into turmoil.
The conservative stalwart’s legacy of advancing originalism in legal discourse left a profound impact on the bench he occupied for nearly three decades.
Colleagues praised the devout Catholic’s sharp mind and biting wit. Within minutes of his death hitting the headlines, talk turned to who would fill his vacancy, tipping the court’s balance in liberals’ favor.
Throughout the balance of the term, Scalia’s seat remained unfilled while his absence forced the eight remaining justices to grapple with deciding hugely controversial cases in 4-4 ties — not an outcome that bodes well for the institution or lower courts seeking legal clarity.
2. Abortion rights reaffirmed
Justice Anthony Kennedy, nearly 80 years old, saved the court from an even split in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
The Reagan appointee sided with the court’s liberal wing to create a 5-3 majority upholding women’s constitutional right to abortion services without unnecessary interference from governmental forces.
Writing for the majority, Justice Stephen Breyer found that Texas state lawmakers created an “undue burden” on women by creating stricter, and medically useless, guidelines for abortion doctors and facilities to operate legally. Several states have implemented similar requirements to those in Texas, now thrusting them into legal limbo if state leaders try to enforce them.
The Whole Woman’s Health ruling is widely considered the court’s most important abortion decision since Casey in 1992 which originally created the “undue burden” test.
3. Obama immigration action stopped
President Obama’s 2014 executive actions to safeguard up to 5 million illegal immigrants from deportation and provide them with work permits ran headlong into an unmoved judicial branch.
Texas leaders, along with 25 other states, sued the federal government on the grounds that it would force them to spend taxpayer money on services for those in the country illegally, like providing state-subsidized driver’s licenses.
The high court originally voted prior to Scalia’s death to hear the case suggesting the conservative wing had enough votes to overrule the president.
In fact, the justices expanded the case’s parameters to include consideration of whether Mr. Obama overstepped his constitutional executive authority setting up a clash between the two equally powerful branches of government.
But that collision never materialized.
In the end, the court split 4-4 in United States v. Texas, thereby defaulting to the lower court rulings and maintaining the injunction.
The case’s merits could still be argued in lower courts and return to SCOTUS, but is dead in the water for now.
In the meantime, millions of adults working in the country illegally remain a low deportation priority but are not completely off the legal hook.
4. Affirmative action approved
Fisher v. University of Texas made an encore appearance in the court’s gilded chamber this year.
The case centers on a white student named Abigail Fisher who was not admitted to UT and challenged its admissions policy which considers applicants’ race in certain cases.
The school argued that the policy helps create diversity while the student claimed it was patently unfair to equally qualified white students.
Only seven justices were left to sort out the legality of UT’s program since Justice Elena Kagan recused from the case due to previous work on the issue.
It came down to a 4-3 majority in favor of UT.
Kennedy had previously signaled his preference for a move away from race-based admissions and hiring policies, but wrote the court’s opinion determining that the university had sufficiently tailored its race-conscious program.
Former Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in 2003 that affirmative action policies would likely become outdated around the year 2028 leading many legal scholars to ponder when, or if, there could be a shift on the way.
5. Merrick Garland nominated
It’s now been several months since the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia.
Garland, the chief judge of the D.C. Court of Appeals, presides over the country’s second most powerful court and has received bipartisan support for his sterling abilities and untarnished record.
But that was before he became Mr. Obama’s official SCOTUS pick.
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) once described Garland, then a nominee to the D.C. Circuit “highly qualified” to sit on the federal bench.
Garland has met with dozens of senators following his SCOTUS nomination, completed a detailed questionnaire, and satisfied all the standard requirements for Supreme Court nominees, but still faces a unified blockade.
The Obama administration has committed to sticking with Garland through the end of the president’s term.
6. GOP confirmation blockade
The Republican machine went from zero to 1600 the moment that news of Scalia’s death hit the airwaves.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) consulted nobody before issuing a statement saying that his members would not confirm, or even consider, a nominee before a new president was inaugurated in January 2017.
Democrats held “Do Your Job” press conferences. Constituents wrote letters. Garland showed up for coffee with GOP leaders.
While Republicans characterize their year-long stonewall of the nominee as election-year-business-as-usual, the move is, in fact, unprecedented in modern times.
7. No retirements
The final day of each term is traditionally the moment that retiring justices announce plans to step down.
On June 27, as the justices prepared to leave for summer recess, there were no such announcements.
With several justices having served multiple decades on the court, the next president could easily be faced with four vacancies over an eight-year span.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 83. Anthony Kennedy is 79. Stephen Breyer is 77. Clarence Thomas is 68.
Given the judges’ advanced age and declining health, this is one case where the lack of action could later produce a hugely significant development within a few years.
Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales