The Supreme Court is an institution of great significance in the administration of justice in the government. It deals with cases that are mainly based on the interpretation of the Constitution. Cases that are heard and determined in the United States Supreme Court can be from any of the fifty states that make up the Union as well as the territories. The court is made up of nine justices; all of them presidential nominees with security of tenure (Patrick 2006). This means that once the judges have been nominated by the president they cannot be removed from office by anyone. Not even the president of the United States. After being nominated by the president, they confirmed by the senate, they can stay in office till death or a personal decision to retire.
The nine judges who are judged with the responsibility of determining cases have exhibited a curious pattern throughout the history of the United States Supreme Court. This has led to the placement of these judges on different sides of the ideological spectrum with some being declared as conservatives and other being labeled liberals. Those who do not fall into any of these ideological divisions are assumed to be independent. The expectation of the public is that the men and women who are given the opportunity to dispense justice at the highest possible level in the nation should be beyond ideological labels (Rehnquist 2001, 210-213). But evidently, this is not the case. The results of cases that are based on ideological premises always end up splitting the Supreme Court decision according to the inclination of each justice (Toobin 2006, 43).
In this paper, we will examine four cases, all of which are based on the First Ammendment.The Clause is free exercise of religion as spelt out in the Constitution of the United States. These four cases are not as ideologically divisive as are cases that deal with controversial subjects such as abortion and same sex marriages. Nevertheless, the nine judges were not able to reach a consensus or a uniform opinion in all the four cases. Another factor that is unique to these four cases other than the fact that they are all on the same subject is that either all or eight of the nine judges were present in all the four cases.Precisely, all the nine justices were present when two of the four cases were heard and determined while eight of the nine justices were present when all the four cases were heard and determined. What are these cases?
The cases that this research paper is based on are: Employment Division v Smith which was decided by the 1989-1990 court, Lyng v Northwest Indian CPA that was decided by decided by the 1989-1990 court, O’lene v. Estate of Shabazz that was decided by the 1986-1987 court, and Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida that was decided by the 1986-1987 court. All these court cases have another similarity in that all of them were heard and determined at the time when the court was under the leadership of Chief Justice William Hubbs Rehnquist. Who are the justices who presided over these court cases?
Chief Justice William Rehnquist was present when all the four cases were heard and determined. The other eight justices who were in two of the cases namely; Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida and O’lene v. Estate of Shabazz were Sandra O’Connor, William J.Brennan Jr, Byron R.White, Thurgood Marshall, Antonin Scalia, Harry A. Blackmun, Lewis F.Powell Jr, and John Paul Stevens. In the cases of Employment Division v Smith and Lyng v Northwest Indian CPA, Chief Justice Rehnquist and all the other justices were present except Justice Lewis F.Powell Jr who had since been replaced by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Thus Kennedy heard these two cases while Powell heard the first two cases. Having identified the justices who heard and determined the cases, it is important to look at the opinion or decision that was reached by the court and the significance of considering cases that had more than seven of the nine justices present.
In the case of Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida that was decided by the 1986-1987 court, the appellant, Paula Hobbie had been dismissed by her employer on the premises that she had refused to work on Friday evening through Saturday evenings due to the fact that she had joined the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) church. She filed for unemployment benefits with the Florida Unemployment Bureau for benefits from the company that employed her but her request was rejected. The reason given was that she was fired due to workplace misbehavior. An appeal taken to the Fifth Circuit Court in Florida agreed with the earlier decision. She decided to take the case to the Supreme Court of the United States. The question raised was whether her free exercise of religion was violated by the employer. The decision was in favor of Paula in an outstanding 8-1(Lane 2008, 23).
In the second case of O’lene v. Estate of Shabazz which was decided by the 1986-1987, the petitioner was O’lone and the question was whether denying a prisoner the request to attend a religious service constituted a violation of the First Ammendment, free exercise of religion clause. The court decided that it was not a violation of the First Amendment, free exercise of religion. The reason given was the legal rehabilitation requirement for prisoners is a necessary federal regulation. The decision was 5-4.with five for and four against.
The third case is Lyng v Northwest Indian CPA.This case was heard and determined by the 1989-1990 court whereby the Northwest Indian CPA that defends cultural sites of Native Americans sued the Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng because the United States Forest Service was harvesting trees located in a forest the Northwest Indian CPA considered important to the Indians because they used the site to conduct religious services.The reason for harvesting the trees by the Forest Service was the planned construction of a road. The court decided in favor of the Secretary of Agriculture that it was not a violation of free exercise of religion (Tinsley 2001, 56).
The verdict was 5-3 given that Kennedy did not vote. Then there is the case of Smith v. Employment division in which two Native Americans who were employees of a drug addict rehabilitation facility were discovered to be ingesting a powerful hallucinogen called peyote that led to their dismissal from the drug rehabilitation facility. They argued that they were ingesting the hallucinogen for religious purposes and therefore claimed that their dismissal was a violation of their First Ammendment, free exercise rights. The court ruled that the two Native Americans had the obligation to comply with government regulation and therefore not sniff the hallucinogen while employed in the facility. It was a six – three decision with the majority (six) going for the Employment Division.
The Cases in Detail
Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida was a First Amendment case under the clause of free exercise of religion. It was heard and determined by the 1986-1987 court that was under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The person who brought the case to the Supreme Court, Paula Hobbie had been sent away from her place of work on the grounds that she had refused to work on Friday evening through Saturday evening because she had joined the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) church which required its members not to work during the Sabbath that runs during the time that Paula had refused to report to work. She filed with the Florida Unemployment Bureau for unemployment benefits from her employer but she was denied on the grounds that she was fired because she had not followed the rules that were in place at the company that she was working for.
Hobbie decided to appeal to the Fifth Circuit Court in Florida but the court upheld the earlier decision. She then took the case to the Supreme Court. The question raised was whether her First Amendment rights under free exercise of religion had been violated through her dismissal on the basis of obeying her religious doctrines. The Supreme Court heard and determined the issue whereby they agreed with Paula Hobbie, that her free exercise of religion was under undue pressure by her employer. The verdict had a majority of eight with only one dissent. Justice Brennan, Justice White, Justice Powell, Justice Blackmun, Justice Scalia, Justice Sandra, Justice Marshall, and Justice Stevens were on the side of the majority with Chief Justice Rehnquist standing alone on the dissenting side.
This particular case had a unique outlook in that the expected division that is evident in most cases was absent. Both conservative and liberal justices ganged up in favor of Paula.
O’lene v. Estate of Shabazz
This case was decided by the 1986-1987 court. The question that was brought before the Court was whether a person who was held prisoner for rehabilitation purposes would be released to attend religious services. The petitioner, O’lone felt that his free exercise of religion as provided for in the First Amendment had been violated by him being denied the chance to attend church services. The Supreme Court came up with a verdict of five to four (5-4) with Rehnquist, White, Powell, Sandra, and Scalia taking the side of the majority. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Brennan who was joined by Justice Marshall, Justice Blackmun and Justice Stevens. In this case, the Rehnquist wing which was considered the conservative section of the Supreme Court at the time ganged up to show the conservative thinking on dealing with cases related to detention.
With reference to the above case, it is important to note that these groupings or blocks were never strictly along the lines of ideology as widely claimed by some analysts. The reasoning that was given in the decision that was reached in this case was that the requirements of the penal code had to be enforced for prisoners as required by the law of the United States Penal System. They therefore saw nothing to do with the violation of the petitioner’s right to exercise religion freely. No one had stood in his way apart from the crime that resulted in him being subjected to due course of the law.
Lyng v Northwest Indian CPA
This case was decided by the 1989-1990 court. The facts of the case were that the Northwest Indian CPA that protects cultural sites of American Indians had sued the Secretary for Agriculture Richard Lyng because the United States Forest Service was considering constructing a road after harvesting trees located in a forest area (Chimney Rock) which the Northwest Indian CPA classified as important to the culture of Native Americans. This is because they used the site to carry out religious services.The case was referred to the Supreme Court from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, which had instituted a permanent injunction on the United States Forest Service on the issue of cutting down the trees in the forest and constructing the planned road.
The Supreme Court reached a verdict that favored the Secretary of Agriculture that it was not a violation of free exercise of religion. The decision was 5-3 with Kennedy not participating. The majority opinion was written by Justice Sandra O’Connor and she was joined by the Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Stevens, Justice Scalia and Justice White. The dissenting opinion was written by Justice Brennan who was joined by Justice Marshall, and Justice Blackmun.
The grounds or reason that the justices gave was that the government is not in a position to meet the requests or needs of a religious nature for every citizen and it was not justifiable to stop public programs that in any case did not inhibit religious freedom.
Employment Division v Smith (The Case with Special Concurrence from Justice Sandra)
This case was heard and determined by the Supreme Court session of 1989-1990 after being referred there by the Oregon Court of Appeals. It involved the Employment division and two Native Americans who ingested a powerful hallucinogen called peyote that led to their dismissal from a drug rehabilitation facility in which they were working. They argued that the hallucinogen was being ingested for religious purposes thus claiming that their dismissal was a violation of their First Amendment, free exercise rights (Greenawalt 2006, 79). The Oregon Court of Appeals had reversed an earlier decision and declared that their free exercise of religion rights were violated by being required to stop ingesting a substance that had a religious significance. It therefore faulted the denial of unemployment benefits. The Supreme Court referred the case back to the Supreme Court of Oregon which agreed that they were wrongly denied their unemployment benefits.
The state of Oregon took it up and appealed to the Supreme Court once more. The court ruled that the two Native Americans had the obligation to comply with government regulation and therefore not sniff the hallucinogen while employed in the facility. It was a six – three (6-3) decision with the majority (six) going for the Employment Division. The majority opinion was written by Justice Scalia who was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Kennedy, Justice White, Justice Stevens and a special concurrence from Justice Sandra. Justice Blackmun wrote the dissenting opinion.Justice Marshall and Justice Brennan joined him. The reasoning of the court was that there is no rationale for one to use his or her religious beliefs as a reason for not obeying a legitimate government law on what the government is regulating.
Table 1. With two cases decided by Justices Sandra O’Connor, William J.Brennan Jr, Byron R.White, Thurgood Marshall, Antonin Scalia, Harry A.Blackmun, Lewis F.Powell Jr, John Paul Stevens, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist
|Hobbie v |
|O’lene v |
Table 2.With two cases that were decided by Justices Sandra O’Connor, William J.Brennan Jr, Byron R.White, Thurgood Marshall, Antonin Scalia, Harry A.Blackmun, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist
|Lyng v Indian CPA||Majority||Majority||Majority||Dissent||X||Dissent||Dissent||Majority||Majority|
|Employment v Smith||Majority||Majority||Majority |
Analysis of Tabulated Information
Looking t the above tables, a number of conclusions can be drawn. Patterns are evident and consistency is displayed. The following inferences are based on the above set of tables.
Once in a while, a case goes to the Supreme Court of the United States which beats the ideological logic. The conservative and liberal incompatibility gets torn and uniformity of opinion is displayed. The reality regarding such cases is that they are rare. In the cases analyzed above, Hobbie v The Unemployment Appeals Commission of Florida falls into this category. With the exception of the Chief Justice William Rehnquist, all the other justices voted in favor of Paula Hobbie. All the other conservative and liberal justices found themselves on one side of the verdict. This is what statisticians call outliers. This is because of the rarity with which such decisions were made at that duration of the Supreme Court and the same logic holds true today.
Patterns and Consistency
The other cases show consistency for most of the justices. It is for example easy to note that Chief Justice William Rehnquist always agreed with the majority. His opinion also agreed with that of White, Sandra, Scalia and Powell most of the time. This is the kind of ganging up that has been witnessed in the past in the decisions of the Supreme Court. The other side also showed similar ganging up with Brennan always dissenting. He was in line with Marshall and Blackmun most of the time with Stevens swinging in between. In fact, Stevens voted once with Brennan.He however showed a tendency of leaning towards the Rehnquist group given that he stood with this group three times compared to the single time he joined Brennan.Kennedy sided with the Rehnquist group on the case that he participated in out of the four cases. This means that his inclination is not easy to tell from the tables. It can only be done upon the observation of a larger sample of cases whereby the presence of a pattern can be investigated.
Block formation among the justices of the Supreme Court is based on a number of reasons. The ones that have been heavily suggested to be behind the block formation include the background of the individual justices, precedence, the religious philosophy of the individual justices, and the political voices they tend to align themselves with (Toobin 2006, 58).This is traceable to the nomination time when the process gets dirty with each side of the political divide trying to undermine the nomination made by the president of the rival party. There is also the freshman effect that is common with newly appointed justices.
Focusing on political ideology, justices who are considered conservative are nominees of Republican presidents. Once they land in the Supreme Court, they make decisions that are sympathetic to the conservative course. But these decisions do not come easily because at the conference level, the justices tend to argue towards creating a semblance of consensus that forms the written opinion. (Rehnquist 253-256).It is also not expressly given that a nominee of a Republican president will be conservative since a conservative nominee may not get senate approval in a Democrat controlled senate.
The religious beliefs of the justices have also been a factor in some of their decisions. Notable among these are the decisions made by staunch Catholics when dealing with issues pertaining to abortion or gay marriages. The presence of a majority of such justices in the court leads to the formation of a block that always manifests this character in their decision. Their faith sets them against gay marriages, abortion and to some degree; gun laws. Justice Scalia is a good example of justices who has manifested their faith in their decisions. In this line, he is joined by Rehnquist whose Lutheran faith is believed to have formed the base for his fairly conservative leaning. This is confirmed from the block whereby Scalia and Rehnquist took similar sides most of the time.
Besides the above, the block formation can be influenced by seniority. If a reasonable number of justices are appointed at the same time, they tend to gang up together as they take their time to learn the system. Their reactions may range from following senior justices, voting on precedence or taking their own freshman stand. Precedence has been found to be the most prominent factor so far (Toobin 2006, 118)
From this paper, it is evident that the decision making in the Supreme Court of the United States takes place along a particular pattern. Decision making blocks are evident and the ever present claim that there are ideological divisions in the Supreme Court seems to be getting a validation.
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