What Happens With a Supreme Court Tie?

The legal world was shocked to learn several weeks ago that the longest serving Supreme Court Justice died in his sleep at a Texas hunting resort. Soon after the condolences were made, and mourning had subsided, the reality of what it means to lose a Supreme Court Justice to the legal world.

The Justice who died in this instance is known as the most conservative on the court. This court is typically seen by many experts as one that is split by an ideological line of four conservatives, four liberals, and one swing vote that could go either way on any vote. So when one of the conservative justices passed on, the question arose of what would happen for the cases that are currently before the court.

Once answer to the problem was for the President to appoint a new justice, and the Senate confirm the choice so the court could get on with its work. But the political reality of that happening was, and is, slim to none. In fact the President did appoint a replacement, but the Senate has refused to consider even holding hearings on the nomination.

So since the court will remain at eight Justices for the foreseeable future, some cases will end as a tie. That is what happened recently in a case about lending discrimination practices. The case came to the court from two women who were asked to co-sign on their husband’s business loans, or the loans would not be approved. The women felt this was discriminatory under the Fair Lending Act, because that law prohibits banks from discriminating based on marital status.

Split Court

The Supreme Court originally took on the case because lower courts throughout the country made different rulings with opposing outcomes. At oral arguments, where the now deceased Justice was present, it seemed that the woman would be denied their claim. But after the Justice died, it was clear that there would be a split court four voting each way. And that is exactly what happened.

The High Court issued its first split decision where in a one sentence opinion, the Justices affirmed the lower court opinion. So what happens now? The lower court opinion holds for that circuit, but there is no national precedent set for other courts to follow, and basically the laws remains unchanged. As you can see, this puts the legal world in a situation where some laws apply in some parts of the country, but those same laws apply in a different way in a different part of the country.

Avoiding situations like this is why there is an odd number of Justices on the Supreme Court. But since the passing of the Justice, this case will likely only be the first in a line of cases that will either be split, or retained until a new Justice appointed in his stead.

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Understanding how the law applies via court decision is an important part of what we do at The Pittman Firm. This enables us to bring the most effective case possible against those responsible for causing injuries to our clients. If you have been injured in an accident, or through someone else’s negligence, contact us. We will go over your case with you for free.
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