Make no mistake, the role of Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court profoundly impacts the balance of power among the branches of our government. Now, with the untimely passing of Justice Antonin Scalia on February 13, the void created in the balance within the Supreme Court itself cannot be overstated. President Obama’s promptly convened news conference about nominating a replacement, and the Republican presidential debate’s focus on confirming – or not confirming – a nominee, demonstrate that in the space of 24 hours the future composition of the Supreme Court has become one of the most important issues facing the country and its governance.
So what does this mean for employers?
First, many cases pending on the Supreme Court’s docket now almost certainly will reach a different outcome than they would have had Justice Scalia remained on the Supreme Court through the end of the June 2016 Term. Several key cases, including some with important ramifications for employers, have not yet been decided.
Second, the previous ideological makeup of the Supreme Court — generally thought of as five conservatives and four liberals — now has shifted to an even split between conservative and liberal Justices as the work of the Supreme Court continues. This tenuous balance likely will change again, but the complexion of the Supreme Court largely will depend on whether President Obama is able to secure the confirmation of a replacement, or if the vacancy remains open through the upcoming presidential election. Whether President Obama or his successor nominates the next Justice may influence the direction of the Supreme Court for years or decades to come.
Some Context Regarding The Supreme Court
The death of Justice Scalia means that the normally nine-member Supreme Court will probably be down to eight Justices when it rules this Term on such divisive issues as abortion rights, immigration, affirmative action, and the power of public-sector unions.
President Obama already has stated that he intends to nominate a replacement, and the White House has signaled that it has been preparing a slate of potential nominees. However, it is unclear whether the Republican-controlled Senate will allow a nomination to proceed, or if the Senate will confirm an Obama nominee. Even if a nominee is confirmed, he or she is unlikely to join the Supreme Court prior to the end of its 2016 Term in June.
Given the political showdown that is all but sure to consume the White House and Congress, it is substantially likely that several important decisions will be split on a 4 – 4 vote. When the Supreme Court is equally divided, the lower court ruling remains in place but no national precedent is set. Thus, several rulings this Term that were expected to change American law instead may only extend the status quo.
Moreover, Justice Scalia’s death affects more cases on the Supreme Court’s docket than those that have yet to be argued, or voted upon by the Supreme Court. His death also affects cases where oral argument has taken place, but rulings have not yet been issued. His previous votes in any such cases no longer count. Thus, if a preliminary vote on a case was 5 – 4 with Scalia in the majority, that opinion would have provided national precedent. Now, with his vote eliminated, a 4 – 4 decision emerges that does not affect the state of the law.
Cases On The Docket
Over the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court – with its conservative faction led by Justice Scalia – increasingly has shaped the contours of complex litigation through its rulings on class actions, employment-related litigation, and governmental enforcement issues. Justice Scalia was at the center of these rulings. Two significant examples include his authorship of the 2011 decision in Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes and the 2013 decision in Comcast Corp. v. Behrend, both of which dramatically changed the rules for when and how class actions may proceed.
This Term also includes several cases that have the potential to affect employers in the realm of consumer or employment class actions, labor relations, and affirmative action. Supreme Court prognosticators were expecting several of these decisions to be decided 5 – 4 and set national precedent. Although we cannot predict with certainty how the Supreme Court will rule, it now appears substantially likelier that many of the decisions will turn out 4 – 4, leaving the lower court decision intact and, in some cases, failing to resolve circuit splits that led to the grant of certiorari in the first place.
Key cases affecting employers include:
- Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins, No. 13-1339 – Widely considered the most important class action case of the current Supreme Court term, Spokeo concerns whether individuals who lack allegations of actual injury, but claim a technical violation of a statutory right, can still file class actions. The case involves the Fair Credit Reporting Act and liability for hiring procedures. Oral argument took place in November of 2015.
- Tyson Foods, Inc. v. Bouaphakeo, No. 14-1146 – The case presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to allow or forbid class actions that rely on a composite or “average plaintiff” or “average class member” for damages purposes, sometimes dubbed as “trial by formula.” Brought under the Fair Labor Standards Act, this case presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to determine whether differences between class members essentially prohibit class treatment or that averaging and aggregation are permissible. Oral argument also took place in November of 2015.
- Friedrichs v. Calif. Teachers Association, No. 14-915 – At issue in this case is whether public-sector employees may be compelled to contribute dues to a union. Oral argument took place in January of 2016, and the five conservative Justices seemed ready to invalidate the law. A 4 – 4 split would leave intact the lower court ruling that permitted the law to stand.
- CRST Van Expedited, Inc. v. EEOC, No. 14-1375 – This closely watched case concerns the largest fee sanction award – approximately $4.7 million – ever issued against the Commission. The fee was issued in favor of an employer after a district court ruled that the EEOC failed to meet its pre-suit investigation obligations in a case involving dozens of claimants. The Supreme Court is expected to clarify the obligations of the EEOC in prosecuting systemic lawsuits, and the grounds on which it may be sanctioned for initiating litigation without satisfying its duties under Title VII. Oral argument is set for March.
- Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 14-981 – This case involves the use of affirmative action programs in public university admissions processes. Fisher had previously been up to the Supreme Court in 2013, at which point the it was remanded to the lower court for reconsideration. At oral argument in December of 2015, the conservative Justices seemed ready to strike down the law. Because Justice Kagan has recused herself, it is possible that this case may still be decided on a 4 – 3 vote.
- Heffernan v. Patterson, No. 14-1280 – This case concerns First Amendment freedoms of speech and association. The Supreme Court is likely to determine what standards apply to public employers taking action on the basis of the assumed speech or assumed political affiliation of employees. Oral argument took place in January of 2016.
- Zubik v. Burwell, No. 14-1418 – This case addresses whether or not the government places an undue burden on religiously-affiliated employers by requiring them to opt out of the Affordable Care Act’s contraception coverage mandate. Oral argument is set for March of 2016. A 4 – 4 split would affirm the Third Circuit’s holding that the Act places no substantial burden on employers and religiously-affiliated employers will be required to comply with the Act or face statutory penalties.
Seyfarth is monitoring each of these cases carefully, and likewise will be paying close attention as the process unfolds for the nomination of the next Supreme Court Justice. The stakes for the future of employment law are high, and Seyfarth will keep you updated in real-time as developments occur.