How will Justice Gorsuch influence polarizing Supreme Court cases?


JUDY WOODRUFF: On the domestic front, as we reported, the Supreme Court today welcomed its newest member, Neil Gorsuch, who brings the court back to its full compliment of nine justices.

Jeffrey Brown takes it from there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now that he's officially Justice Gorsuch, we confront the question of how he might influence the high court and its work going forward.

And for that, we turn, as we always do, to Marcia Coyle, chief Washington correspondent for The National Law Journal.

So, Marcia, on one hand you have a conservative justice replacing another conservative justice, so you wouldn't expect major ideological shifts.

MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Well, that's right, Jeff.

I think it is true that Justice Gorsuch will not change the conservative direction of the Supreme Court, but that doesn't mean that his vote is going to be insignificant. And I think we saw that just last term, for example, with Justice Scalia's death. The court split 4-4 in a major immigration case affecting millions of people.

It also divided 4-4 in a major labor union case affecting thousands of union and non-union workers.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which may well come back.

MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely. It's an agenda case on the part of a conservative organization that already is pushing another case toward the Supreme Court.

So, this court has been divided ideologically, and Justice Gorsuch will play a role in the outcome of some very important cases.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and let's look at some of them. Most immediately would be even this week, right, where he for the first time takes part in that decision-making of which cases will go forward.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right. The justices will meet Thursday in a private conference. And they go over petitions that have been submitted to the court in which parties are asking the court to hear their case.

And there are actually two petitions that he may play an important role in whether the court takes or doesn't take them. One is a case from his home state, Colorado. It involves a baker who feels that it's against his religious beliefs to bake a cake for a gay couple's wedding.

JEFFREY BROWN: That one got a lot of attention early on, right?

MARCIA COYLE: It did. And it's been hanging in the court since early December. So, we're not quite sure what the court plans to do with it.

And then another case, interesting case, out of California involves the Second Amendment and California's law that requires a very good reason for you to have a concealed carry gun, a permit for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and then, next week, he starts hearing cases for the first time, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And the biggest one next week is a church and state separation case out of Missouri.

MARCIA COYLE: That's right, and it involves Trinity Lutheran Church of Missouri, which is challenging an amendment to Missouri's constitution, state constitution, that prohibits direct and indirect support of religious organizations and institutions.

Trinity Lutheran Church operates a playground, day care center, and it wanted to participate in a state grant program that allows organizations to refurbish playgrounds with recycled tires. But Trinity Lutheran was turned down because it is a religious institution. So it's claiming that that state constitutional amendment violates our First Amendment free exercise of religion clause.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so then we start to look at the longer term. And even as I say that, I realize he's a younger man, so the longer term for him could be a very long time, right?

But in the more — the closer long term, one of the possible cases would be, well, for example, Donald Trump's immigration case, right?

MARCIA COYLE: Immigration. Right, the executive order on immigration.

That is percolating in a number of courts around the country, federal appellate courts that could rule soon. And I think some of them are hearing arguments in May. We may see decisions from those courts this summer, depending on the urgency of the government in getting the Supreme Court to take a look at this. If the government loses, or if the other side loses, either way, that's going to get to the Supreme Court, undoubtedly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last minute, let me put you on the spot a little bit. We have talked about this in the past.

But now we have — we just went through a process with a lot of questions about impact on the Senate, right, of going through the so-called nuclear option.


JEFFREY BROWN: But also lasting questions about impact on the court itself — a partisan country, a polarized country. To what degree can we say that this has had any impact that you might see about a polarized, partisan court?

MARCIA COYLE: This court is ideologically divided right now. Whether it's partisan may depend on your point of view.

I tend to think that ideology is stronger here than any desire to reach decisions in order to benefit a particular political party. What it all comes down to eventually, Jeff, is that presidential elections are very important, and if you agree with what the court is doing, the justices and the majority, or you don't, you really have to pay attention to who you elect as president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal, thank you, as always.

MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Jeff.

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