July 14, 2020

The U.S. Supreme Court saw a drop in narrowly divided rulings and more than a few unusual alliances among the justices in a term packed with contentious cases on abortion, immigration, LGBTQ rights and agency authority.

With a conservative majority fully settled in — it was Justice Brett Kavanaugh's first full term — watchers expected many cases to swing towards the right or to divide more narrowly. Surprising coalitions among the justices, however, made for a largely unpredictable term and fewer close splits in cases that shed light on judicial rifts surrounding precedent, textualism and more.

Even after taking into account that the coronavirus pandemic shortened the court's oral arguments sessions and pushed a dozen cases to next term, the proportion of 5-4 splits fell compared to last term. Last term roughly one in four signed opinions came down 5-4, while this term it was closer to one in five.

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Roberts Serves Up Swing Votes

The key swing in most of those divided rulings was the chief justice, who ended up being in the majority 96% of the time in this term's rulings. Of the 11 cases that did split narrowly, seven swung to the conservative majority, but two saw the chief justice join with the more liberal cohort.

He was the deciding factor in 5-4 rulings that at least temporarily blocked the Trump administration's efforts to shut down the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programs and struck down a Louisiana law that had largely cut off access to abortion providers for many in the state.

Both rulings shed light on how the chief justice weighs how parties or people may have come to rely on a law or precedent before deciding to overturn that matter, said Joseph M. Sellers, a Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll PLLC partner who represented the NAACP in one of the DACA suits.

The chief justice also notably wrote the 7-2 majorities in the last opinions of the term, which saw President Donald Trump's appointees Gorsuch and Kavanaugh join with him and their more liberal colleagues in two separate rulings about Trump's financial records.

The justices said those records could be subpoenaed by a New York state grand jury, but then vacated and remanded cases involving House committee subpoenas for similar financial information. Here again, the chief justice largely structured the rulings over the issue of precedent.

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