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SCOTUS Kicks Off Deadlock Season With First 4-4 Split

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on March 22, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

We knew it was coming and now it's started. Ever since Justice Scalia's sudden death in mid-February, the Supreme Court has been down a justice, evenly divided, four against four, between its more conservative and liberal wings. A deadlocked Court was inevitable and today the Court released its first equally divided ruling since Justice Scalia's passing.

Expect to see more of this in the future.

One Sentence Says It All

The Court's one sentence per curiam opinion signaled the start of a new (and hopefully brief) era:

"The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court."

And that was that.

The case, Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore, involved alleged discrimination in lending. Valerie Hawkins and Janice Patterson were required by Community Bank to sign as guarantors for loans taken out by their husbands. When the husbands stopped paying (their businesses both flopped), the bank came after the women to collect.

Both women contended that the bank's demand for payment was discrimination based on marital status, as barred by the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. The Eighth Circuit disagreed, finding that the bank had not acted discriminatorily, but its ruling created a split with the Sixth Circuit. That split will continue, given the Court's inability to muster a majority opinion.

4-4 Splits Aren't Unheard of, but They'll Soon Be More Common

An equally divided court isn't unheard of, of course. As Adam Feldman, of Empirical SCOTUS, points out, the last time the court had a 4-4 split was in the 2010 term.

In both of those cases, Justice Elena Kagan (then brand new to the Court) recused herself.

But you can expect such deadlocked decisions to become more common as the Court awaits a new justice. Just last week, President Obama nominated Merrick Garland to fill the empty seat on the Supreme Court's bench. The very same day, Senate Republicans reaffirmed their refusal to "advise and consent" on the President's nomination. Lead by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Republicans are insisting that any new Supreme Court justice be appointed after President Obama's term ends, in January of 2017.

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