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Compromise at the Supreme Court veils its rifts

Excerpt

The following is from the July 1, 2014, edition of The New York Times. Pam Corley, as associate political science professor at SMU, provided expertise for this story.

July 3, 2014

By ADAM LIPTAK

WASHINGTON — Two very different group portraits of the Supreme Court emerged this term, one familiar and one unexpected.

The familiar was on display Monday in two 5-to-4 decisions that were split by angry divisions and seemed to advance a conservative agenda.

But the more finely drawn portrait takes account of the 67 decisions in argued cases this term. The court was unanimous about two-thirds of the time, and those cases revealed signs of compromise and restraint, which many Supreme Court specialists said was a testament to the leadership of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., 59. . . 

The story of the current term was somewhat anticipated in a book published last year by three political scientists: Pamela C. Corley, Amy Steigerwalt and Artemus Ward. It was called “The Puzzle of Unanimity: Consensus on the United States Supreme Court.”

It is, after all, not obvious that the justices should ever all agree. The issues that reach them are complicated and usually susceptible to multiple plausible answers. Lower courts have almost always given varying answers. The justices themselves have differing judicial philosophies.

But the justices know that unanimous decisions have more force, which is why they worked hard to issue them in Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 school desegregation case, and United States v. Nixon, the 1974 decision that hastened the end of the Nixon administration.

Lower courts are less likely to follow divided decisions. But, and here is the bad news for the current court, there are two ways to be divided. “While dissents are clearly detrimental to the authority of majority opinions, concurrences can be equally damaging,” the “Puzzle of Unanimity” authors wrote. “In fact, if a decision of the court is accompanied by a concurrence that does not support the majority opinion, lower courts are less likely to comply with it.”

Read the full story.

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