Supremely misunderstood: realities of the high court

There are some less-publicized truths about the Supreme Court you deserve to know.

(Amelia Neilson-Slabach / Daily Trojan)

It’s probably no surprise that I love law. I love how studying it can surprise people: It’s one of those rare fields where you might find yourself truly understanding the decisions of people with whom you’d probably have very opposing beliefs elsewhere in life, especially in a polling booth. 

Cut to the Supreme Court of the United States — a place where nine people might transform or destroy the lives of millions of Americans by day and kick back with a beer in front of their TVs by night. What’s gotten me more passionate about the Supreme Court, particularly after taking a half dozen law classes at USC, are the unexpected rulings and opinions released in the last few tumultuous years.

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Many of us were, at least, confused by the recent unanimous ruling that former President Donald Trump must stay on the Colorado presidential primary ballot; you’d think that, on such a politically charged issue, a 6-3 ideological split would be in order. But the realities of our highest court — and those of the people who wear the robes — aren’t what they might seem.

Concurring opinions 

You’ve likely heard of the sweeping majority opinion or the landmark dissent, but what took me longer to understand was the purpose of the concurring opinion. It’s a statement from one or more justices that might result in the same “yes” or “no” vote at face value, but that “partially concurs with and partially dissents from the majority’s views, or that concurs only in the result based on alternative reasons,” according to the U.S. Courts website.

You’re probably no stranger to your own kind of concurring opinions in life. To me, it reminds me of two people hating a professor; you don’t really like Mr. Smith because he’s unclear during lectures, but your friend got a bad grade on Mr. Smith’s midterm and, for that reason only, has sentenced him to a fiery, burning Rate My Professors hellscape for eternity.

A 9-0 ruling doesn’t always tell the full story — different ideological wings of the Supreme Court reveal lots in concurring opinions. Though they might have decided together in the Trump case that it is up to Congress to remove an insurrectionist from a federal office’s ballot rather than a “chaotic state-by-state patchwork” of laws, they had a particular disagreement in this case about judicial restraint.

“Even though ‘[a]ll nine Members of the Court’ agree that this independent and sufficient rationale resolves this case, five Justices go on … We cannot join an opinion that decides momentous and difficult issues unnecessarily, and we therefore concur only in the judgment,” read Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ketanji Brown Jackson’s joint opinion.

The common ground

Historically, right up until 2022, unanimous SCOTUS rulings were by far the most common — with an expected drop as the liberal-conservative balance was tipped even more since Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation. At the moment, 9-0 and 6-3 rulings are practically tied as the most common, at 29% and 30% respectively.

Even further, Chief Justice John Roberts has gone on record many times to say that in his own role, he has “a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus” with other members of the court. 

“This commitment to consensus is important,” read one 2018 perspective from The Washington Post. “American law relies heavily on judicial precedent. A unified voice from the Supreme Court provides more clarity for both lower courts and the public on what the law is, instead of what it is believed to be.”

Some things left unsaid

The Supreme Court adopted its first official code of conduct last November, following multiple justices coming under fire for how they handled financial disclosures and recusals during conflicts of interest. But there’s no enforcement provision inside, likely due to its complications with the separation of powers, so its release was about as well-received as “Cats” (2019).

“The code says that if a spouse or child living with the justice has a substantial interest in the outcome of a case — financial or any other interest — the justice is supposed to recuse,” an NPR article read. “Last year, [Clarence] Thomas did not recuse, and was the sole dissenter, in a [Trump] case … despite Ginni Thomas’ texts to then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows urging him to take steps to overturn the 2020 presidential election results.”

A “yikes” for the ages, and that’s only one instance — one that’ll help fuel the fire of ethics concerns no matter who sits on our highest court.

CJ Haddad is a junior writing about local, state and federal laws we use in our daily lives. She is also the managing editor at the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Public Disclosure,” runs every other Thursday.

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