The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh's confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray.
Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops. In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.
Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh. The two votes can't be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration.
The court arrived at this point after an unusual chain of events that began with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February 2016. Senate Republicans refused to act on President Barack Obama's nomination of Merrick Garland, allowing Trump to put Gorsuch on the court in 2017. To this day, Democrats say the seat was stolen from them. Then, over the summer, Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement meant that Trump would also get to replace the court's swing vote with a more reliable conservative. Kavanaugh's track record as an appellate judge suggested he was that man, but his confirmation was nearly derailed by allegations of sexual assault, which Kavanaugh denied.
The accusations against Kavanaugh turned the confirmation process into a national spectacle that culminated in a hearing with Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford, who accused him of assault when they were in high school. Republicans said the allegation was unproven and confirmed Kavanaugh in a rare Saturday session. Spotlighting how emotional the debate had become, a crowd of demonstrators gathered at the Supreme Court building after the Kavanaugh vote, with some climbing the stone statues that line the steps. Roberts has been chief justice for more than 13 years, but he is only 63 and could lead the court for an additional two decades or more.