The Supreme Court began its 2015-6 Term earlier in October. Even though it issued no decisions, the critical issues it considered and the stark divisions on the Court illustrate why Election Day 2016 will be Judgment Day for the Supreme Court and our rights and liberties, when America determines the president who will select Supreme Court nominees beginning in 2017.
Three cases in which the Court heard oral argument in October are good examples. As Supreme Court analyst Tony Mauro put it, the importance of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission v. Electric Power Supply Association is "hard to overestimate," since it could involve literally billions of dollars in electricity costs and determine whether the nation's power grid collapses in the case of a future blackout.
The question before the Court is the validity of a FERC rule that would have the economic effect of persuading large electricity users to cut back their demands at peak power usage times. Not surprisingly, conservative justices like Scalia and Roberts seemed to be clearly siding with big power companies, based on a narrow view of federal government authority, while moderates like Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor appeared to agree with the case for federal authority and the FERC rule.
With Justice Alito recusing himself from the case, the question is whether Justice Kennedy will side with the moderates and uphold the rule or vote with extreme conservatives and vote to affirm a lower court decision striking down the rule. A 4-4 tie would result in the lower court ruling being upheld without a controlling opinion. But if a similar issue arises in a year or so, and if Kennedy, Scalia, or Ginsburg have retired from the Court and are replaced by a nominee selected by the next president, the answer will likely depend on who nominates the new justice.
The Court was similarly divided during oral arguments in October in Montgomery v. Louisiana. That case concerns whether the Court's ruling in 2012, that it is unconstitutional to impose life sentences without possibility of parole on people convicted of murder when they were juveniles, applies to people like 70-year old Henry Montgomery, who was convicted for such a crime long before the Court's ruling and has already spent more than 50 years in prison.
Far right justices Scalia and Alito sounded clearly negative on Montgomery's claim, suggesting that the Court did not even have jurisdiction to hear it, while justices like Kagan and Breyer were far more receptive. As occurred in the 2012 ruling, this case is likely to produce a 5-4 decision with the outcome depending on Justice Kennedy. The fate of a thousand or more people convicted for life while juveniles like Henry Montgomery will hang in the balance.
On its last day of oral arguments in October, the Court heard Campbell-Ewald v. Gomez, one of several cases this Term that concern efforts by business to prevent consumers and others from using class actions to redress corporate wrongdoing. Conservatives on the Court have generally sided with business in such cases and have already severely limited the use of class actions, and Gomez may well be another example.
The issue in the case is whether a business can prevent a consumer like Jose Gomez from bringing a class action to get large amounts of damages and other relief for many injured consumers by offering to give him personally all the damages he can recover as an individual — in this case, around $1,500 for violating a federal law on unsolicited telemarketing. This would be a good deal for the company, since as many as 100,000 consumers could be included in a class action because of similar violations.
As in previous class action cases, questions from moderates like Justices Kagan and Ginsburg suggested they are likely to agree with the consumer, while those from conservatives like Scalia and Roberts were in the corporation's favor, and Justice Kennedy is likely to be the deciding vote. Regardless of how this case is decided, other cases to be considered by the Court this Term — as well as in future years — are likely to have a significant impact on the ability of consumers and others to band together via class actions to obtain meaningful relief for wrongs committed by corporations.
It is always difficult to predict Court decisions and votes based on comments and questions at oral argument, and the Court may not even reach the merits of all the issues presented in these cases. But the importance of the issues at stake — billions of dollars in electricity costs, the stability of the nation's power grid, the fate of more than a thousand people sentenced to life in prison for crimes committed as juveniles, and the ability of consumers to effectively seek justice for corporate wrongdoing — demonstrates the importance of the Supreme Court to the rights and interests of all of us. And the close divisions on the Court on these and other issues, coupled with the fact that four will be over 80 in the next president's first term, show the importance of the 2016 election on the future of the Court — and why November 8, 2016 truly will be Judgment Day.
If you need more convincing, stay tuned as the Court continues its 2015-16 Term — the last term before the 2016 election.