Complex deliberative process, legal doctrines drive Supreme Court rulings in controversial cases

Attorney David BetrasThis week the U.S. Supreme Court handed down decisions in two closely watched controversial cases: June Medical Services LLC. et al. V. Russo and Seila Law v. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Along with being among the most highly anticipated rulings of the term, the opinions in the cases provided valuable insight into both the intricacies of the Court’s deliberative process and two legal precedents, stare decisis and severability, that played a critical role in the outcome and future impact of both cases.

Because the justices discuss and vote on cases in secret, most people have a simplistic view of their decision-making process which, in reality, is extremely complex. The nine members of the Court don’t sit around a table, consider the arguments and issue a ruling when five or more members side with the plaintiffs or the defendants. Discussions go on for months. Memos fly back and forth. Clerks argue with their justices. Positions change. Votes change until a solid majority in favor of an outcome emerges. This is an important point: justices only have to agree on how they are ruling, not on why. The same holds true for dissents.

The decision in June Medical v. Russo illustrates this point of law. The five justices who held that Louisiana’s law requiring doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at local hospitals is unconstitutional did so for different reasons. The Court’s four liberals, led by Justice Steven Bryer based their ruling on the fact that Louisiana’s law, like a nearly identical Texas statute struck down in 2016, put an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the fifth vote in the case, based his concurrence on the doctrine of “stare decisis” which means “to stand by things decided.” This doctrine obligates courts, including the Supreme Court, to follow historical cases when making a ruling on a similar matter. Ironically, Roberts had voted to uphold the Texas law in 2016, but his respect for precedent proved more compelling than his opposition to abortion.

Seila Law v. CFPB is also interesting and instructive. After being cited by the CFPB for ripping off thousands of homeowners in a mortgage scam, Seila Law filed suit against the agency alleging that its governance structure was unconstitutional and the Bureau should, therefore, be abolished. Not surprisingly, banks and big business interests who have sought to destroy the CFPB since it was created, filed briefs supporting Seila’s position.

The Court’s five conservative justices, including Roberts, agreed with the plaintiffs but only in part due to the doctrine of severability which states that if a provision of a piece of legislation is found to be illegal the remainder of the law may remain in effect. In this case, the majority rejected the agency’s governance structure but said it could continue to operate. This means that although Seila won the battle on its primary contention, it lost the war against the CFPB because the ruling protects the agency from future constitutional challenges–an outcome that clearly illustrates the way in which the doctrine of unintended consequences can really be a punch in the gut.