SCOTUS Leaning Left -- a Little

Predictions in the New York Times and elsewhere were that the US Supreme Court could trend left at the end of its session. They weren't far off, with four out of the six major decisions cheering liberals.

/By Hal Ginsberg/ Six days before the Supreme Court's Spring 2015 term ended, the Upshot in Tuesday's June 23 New York Times remarked upon an apparent tilt leftward in recent decisions.  The authors cautioned, however, that soon-to-come blockbuster decisions might alter any perception of a liberal trend.  Well, blockbuster decisions did come – six of them.  Given that four left progressives happy and conservatives distraught, we can conclude that the perceived shift is real.

The 6-3 King v. Burwell decision, announced Thursday June 25, upholding subsidies for those who purchase healthcare insurance on the federal, as opposed to their home state, exchange is probably the most far-reaching.  Millions of Americans will not face crippling hikes in their out-of-pocket insurance expenses.

But perhaps the following day's 5-4 marriage equality decision in Obergefell v. Hodges is the most momentous.  Gay Americans now can sleep assured that they have a Constitutional right to marry their partner of choice in every state of the nation.  We've come an awful long way in a short time.

Still, the court's 5-4 decision Thursday in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs upholding the Obama Justice Department's interpretation of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) should not be discounted.  In brief, the Court concluded that the FHA prohibits states and local governments from enacting housing laws that disproportionately harm minorities either by 1) increasing segregation, 2) steering Section 8 recipients into predominantly minority communities, or 3) reducing available housing for people of color.

To prevail under the FHA, the Court held, plaintiffs do not need to prove discriminatory intent.  They can win by showing disparate impact so long as the defendant does not prove the challenged statute serves a legitimate purpose.

With three blockbusters issued and three to go, the Court headed into the weekend.  Returning on Monday June 29, it announced its final three decisions of the term.  In Michigan v. EPA, the Court vacated Clean Air Act rules reducing permissible levels of mercury emissions from power plants.  The Court held that the agency hadn't followed its legal obligation of factoring in the economic costs of compliance when it first formulated the regulations. 

Writing for the majority, Justice Alito dismissed EPA's claim that it did in fact perform a cost-benefit analysis, one which showed that the health-care savings from the new rules would outweigh the costs to utilities.  Alito reasoned that the analysis needed to be done before the rules were formulated.

In Glossip v. Gross, the Court held that Oklahoma's use of a three-drug cocktail to execute death-row inmates was not cruel and inhuman despite claims that the drugs inflicted pain on condemned prisoners before they died.

Finally, the Court upheld in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission the right of elected legislative bodies to delegate to independent commissions the task of drawing Congressional district lines.

Burnishing the New York Times' credentials as a prophet, last month the Supreme Court struck blows for social justice (marriage equality), economic justice, (affordable healthcare), integrated communities, and fairly drawn (not gerrymandered) Congressional districts.

Sadly, the Court upheld the barbarity of pain-inducing state-sponsored executions.  It also directed the EPA to reconsider Clean Air Act regulations pertaining to mercury emissions from power plants.  The latter decision, however, is not likely to do lasting damage as the rule remains in effect pending reconsideration by the D.C. Circuit and can be reimplemented if it is ultimately struck down.

The arc of justice is unquestionably long.  Recent events demonstrate that while it may not always bend towards justice, it does not necessarily shy away from it either.