Supreme Court Hands Down First 4-To-4 Decision Since Antonin Scalia's Death

The ruling offered a small taste of what an understaffed court is like.
The late justice wasn't big on 4-to-4 ties.
The late justice wasn't big on 4-to-4 ties.

The Supreme Court on Tuesday issued its first evenly split ruling since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia: a decision in a minor banking case involving spouses who serve as guarantors for each other's debts.

The 4-to-4 ruling was "per curiam," which means it was handed down in the name of the entire court, and nobody really knows what justice was on which side.

The opinion was just one line long: "The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court."

That means the ruling sets no nationwide precedent and leaves the lower-court ruling as the final decision in the case.

Leaving the law unsettled for now could potentially be good or bad news for major cases where future splits are a possibility -- including pending disputes on abortion, affirmative action, public union fees, immigration and contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

In the public union fees case, for example, a 4-to-4 split would be an important victory for labor, since union advocates won that case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which skews liberal. (The unions didn't do so well when the Supreme Court heard the case.)

But a split ruling in the abortion case, which is coming from the more conservative 5th Circuit, would represent a blow for women's access to reproductive services, since the lower-court ruling upheld the Texas abortion clinic regulations being challenged.

If more splits do happen, the Supreme Court may consider these issues again in the future, but it probably won't until the Senate decides to confirm Scalia's replacement -- whether that will be the recently nominated Merrick Garland or someone else is still anyone's guess.

Which all underscores the need for a fully functioning Supreme Court. As Justice Anthony Kennedy once said at a congressional hearing, 4-4 ties "mean that everybody’s time is wasted."

Or as Scalia himself put it once: "The Court proceeds with eight Justices, raising the possibility that, by reason of a tie vote, it will find itself unable to resolve the significant legal issue presented by the case."