Clarence Thomas Takes Over Some Emergency Abortion And Death Row Petitions

Read that headline again slowly.

One pending matter left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia was what would happen to his stewardship over the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

Since the dawn of the federal judiciary, the Supreme Court has assigned its members to handle certain matters from appellate circuits spread across the country. The justices' duties under these assignments have varied over the years, but primarily involve overseeing emergency petitions -- such as requests from death-row inmates seeking to halt executions and other matters asking for a quick response from the court.

In keeping with the law, the Supreme Court on Thursday made official the circuit assignments following Scalia's death. Justice Clarence Thomas will be handling requests from the 5th Circuit, previously overseen by Scalia.

This means Thomas' jurisdiction over these emergency requests is now huge. Prior to Thursday's order, Thomas already oversaw the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Georgia and Florida. With the addition of the 5th Circuit, he now also is the liaison for cases from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi.

All of this is in keeping with the law's requirement that the Supreme Court make these allotments "in vacation" -- whenever a seat on the court is empty, for whatever reason.

This doesn't mean Thomas and the other justices rule on these emergency petitions alone. More often than not, they refer matters to the full court for adjudication -- like Chief Justice John Roberts did a few weeks ago, when the court halted the implementation of President Barack Obama's clean energy plan. All it takes is five justices' votes to act on these emergency requests.

Thomas should start getting work from his new assignment fairly soon. States that make up the 5th Circuit are big on the death penalty, which guarantees a constant stream from death-row inmates seeking a reprieve from execution. The 5th Circuit also has seen a wave of restrictive abortion regulations -- many of them being challenged in the courts.

Just Wednesday, the 5th Circuit dealt a punishing blow to abortion providers in Louisiana -- a ruling that effectively forced all but one clinic in the state to close. Abortion-rights advocates vowed to seek emergency relief from the Supreme Court.

As of now -- and until Scalia's vacant seat is filled -- that and other petitions coming from the Deep South will go to Thomas.