Supreme Court rules unanimously in latest opinions

By Anna Salvatore

December 11, 2020

The Supreme Court released four unanimous rulings on Thursday on issues ranging from the no-fly list to rape in the military. 


Although the Supreme Court makes news for 5-4 opinions in June, its first opinions of the term are often unanimous. In both 2013 and 2016, the Court was even unanimous 90% of the time, according to an analysis by legal statistician Adam Feldman. Why do the justices form coalitions in December and divide along partisan lines in June? It takes longer to write opinions on topics such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and union rights, which are politically charged and not explicitly mentioned in the Constitution. The justices agree early on the easier cases and then spend months quarreling and concurring and dissenting on the harder ones. 


One of Thursday’s opinions was Tanzin v. Tanzir, in which the Court ruled that Muslim men who are wrongfully placed on the government’s no-fly list can sue for money. Writing for the majority, Justice Clarence Thomas explained that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act forbids the government from substantially burdening people’s religious exercise, with certain narrow exceptions. The law also allows people whose exercise was burdened to seek “appropriate relief.” To understand if “appropriate relief” includes money, the Supreme Court examined how past courts have interpreted the phrase. It concluded that “in the context of suits against government officials, damages have long been awarded as appropriate relief.”


The next opinion was Carney v. Adams, a case about whether Delaware’s constitution can mandate political balance on the state’s five major courts. In other words, the state forbids any more than a bare majority of Republican or Democratic judges. James Adams, an independent, argued that the requirement violated his First Amendment rights by forcing him to identify as either Republican or Democrat. But the Supreme Court didn’t address that interesting legal question, instead holding that Adams was not able to sue the state in the first place. To sue, wrote Justice Stephen Breyer, Adams must have had a “concrete, particularized injury,” but Adams never applied to become a judge on Delaware’s courts. He would’ve been able to sue if he applied and got rejected. 


You might remember that the Supreme Court used similar reasoning in Gill v. Whitford, a case a few terms ago about political gerrymandering. Rather than address the juicy legal questions about whether politicians can manipulate congressional maps to favor their party, the Court said that North Carolina voters weren’t able to sue because they hadn’t suffered a concrete, particularized injury. When the justices focus on “standing” — whether people have standing to sue — it often means that they’re waiting for a later case with more clear-cut or dramatic background facts. Then they can really cut loose. 


The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was the subject of the third opinion, United States v. Briggs. The question here was when, exactly, rape victims in the military are allowed to bring their lawsuits. The UCMJ says that offenses “punishable by death” can be tried and punished “at any time without limitation,” so the Supreme Court held that rape victims aren’t held to the usual five-year statute of limitations for bringing lawsuits. According to retired Air Force Col. Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, “Today's opinion was a huge win for military rape survivors.”


Finally, the Supreme Court held in Rutledge v. Pharmaceutical Care Management Assn. that Arkansas’s law regulating pharmacy middlemen isn’t automatically overridden by federal law. 


The justices will convene Friday to discuss the oral arguments from the past week. Next Monday, we may receive more decisions as well.