Supreme Court Becomes Night Court in October of Oddities

COURT HEALTH
Photograph by Andrew Herrer/Bloomberg

It’s been a weird month at the U.S. Supreme Court. The oldest justice pulls an all-nighter. Another accidentally stops gay weddings in Nevada. And the court makes its mark on same-sex marriage, abortion and the November election without offering any explanation.

Maybe Chief Justice John Roberts wanted to mix things up as he began his 10th term.

The oddities started on the first Monday of October, the term’s traditional kickoff day. At 9:30 a.m. the press corps was handed what looked to be a routine list of orders. Reporters soon realized that more than 30 pages were missing.

Those pages turned out to contain surprising news: The court, without comment, was letting gay marriage start in as many as 11 more states.

Two days later, a building that closes to the public at 4:30 p.m. turned into Night Court. At 6:50 p.m. on Oct. 8 the court blocked same-day voter registration in North Carolina. The coming days saw a 9 p.m. order halting Wisconsin’s voter-ID law and a 6:30 p.m. order stopping Texas’s new abortion restrictions. In each case, the majority gave no reasoning.

Along the way, Justice Anthony Kennedy issued what he thought was a temporary halt to the start of gay marriage in Idaho, whose governor was seeking a delay. The hitch was that the order contained a case number that also made it applicable to Nevada, where officials were poised to start issuing licenses.

Kennedy issued a corrected order later that day, clearing weddings to begin in Nevada. The court eventually lifted the Idaho stay as well.

Notorious Ginsburg

Finally there was Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81-year-old justice who in liberal circles has become a heroine, fondly nicknamed “notorious R.B.G.”

Displeased that the court was poised to issue an election-related order that would let Texas require photo IDs at the polls, Ginsburg set to work on a dissent that took almost until dawn on a Saturday morning. The court released the order and dissent at 5:05 a.m. on Oct. 18.

At a public appearance the next day, Ginsburg laughed when asked why it took her until the wee hours. With the last brief filed less than 24 hours earlier, “there wasn’t much time to write the dissent,” she said.

As it turns out, Ginsburg might have benefited from a little more time. This week, the court deleted a sentence in her opinion that had incorrectly said Texas wouldn’t accept ID cards issued by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs.

The announcement, issued at Ginsburg’s instruction, was unprecedented. Then again, at the Supreme Court this month, it was practically business as usual.

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