WASHINGTON — The conservative Roberts Supreme Court just gave American liberals the most joyous judicial week they could have asked for.
In a span of just two days, the rightward-leaning court all but settled Obamacare as the law of the land; reaffirmed key components of housing discrimination law meant to protect minorities; and granted gay Americans the right to get married in any state they wish.
The string of progressive victories left officials hugging and high-fiving at the White House, gay couples crying tears of joy on the courthouse steps, and hardline conservatives wondering on Twitter whether their erstwhile judicial heroes were now traitors.
In King v. Burwell, decided Thursday, the court ruled 6-3 to reject a lawsuit brought by conservatives that would have stripped Obamacare subsidies from people who purchased their health coverage on the federal exchanges. A ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor threatened to unravel the system created by the Affordable Care Act, potentially causing millions to lose their health care coverage and wreaking havoc on state insurance markets.
The ruling marked the second time in three years the court had rejected an existential threat to Obamacare. As in the previous case, 2012’s NFIB v. Sebelius, Chief Justice John Roberts joined the liberal wing of the court, this time along with Justice Anthony Kennedy, to keep the president’s signature law intact. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing in a typically scathing dissent, lambasted the majority’s reasoning as “interpretive jiggery-pokery” and “pure applesauce.”
In Texas Dept. of Housing v. Inclusive Communities, also decided Thursday, the court handed a victory to civil rights groups with a 5-4 decision that upheld so-called disparate impact claims. Joined by Kennedy, who often plays the swing vote, the liberal justices ruled that someone suing under fair housing law doesn’t need to prove that a developer or the government knowingly discriminated — only that the policy had a disparate impact, something that can often be demonstrated with statistics.
Had the conservative wing prevailed, plaintiffs bringing claims would have had the far more difficult task of proving intentional discrimination, which typically isn’t documented by those who practice it. Civil rights groups so feared an unfavorable ruling in such a case that the Obama administration sought to keep the question of disparate impact away from the Roberts court.
Finally, in Obergefell v. Hodges, issued Friday, the justices ruled 5-4 to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide, marking a triumph for the gay rights movement decades in the making. The liberal justices, who were joined again by Kennedy, determined that the Constitution grants anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, the right to marry, effectively invalidating the bans against same-sex unions that still exist in 13 states. “No longer may this liberty be denied,” Kennedy wrote in his highly quotable decision for the majority.
Scalia penned another memorably incredulous dissent, opening by saying he chose to write separately from Roberts in order to “call attention to this Court’s threat to American democracy.” Insisting his concern was not the merit or lack thereof of gay marriage, he wrote that the majority’s “pretentious” and “egotistic” opinion lacked “even a thin veneer of law” and was chock full of “mummeries and straining-to-be-memorable passages.” “[W]hat really astounds is the hubris reflected in today’s judicial Putsch,” he seethed.
The good news for liberals wasn’t confined to just the high-profile cases. In Friday’s Johnson v. United States decision, which was overshadowed by the Obergefell case, the court ruled 8-1 that a section of the Armed Career Criminal Act, which is used to extend prison sentences, is “unconstitutionally vague.” The ruling may compel Congress to address the language of the law as thousands of prisoners seek to have their sentences reduced.
The majority opinion in the Johnson case was written by Scalia, giving progressive court watchers another reason to celebrate. As ThinkProgress’s Ian Millhiser explains, the Johnson opinion makes Scalia one of just two justices who’ve penned as many as eight majority opinions this term. If tradition is any indication, then Scalia probably won’t be writing another majority opinion before the court breaks, likely leaving the duty to one of his less conservative colleagues.
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