Supreme Court Term Nears End, With Big Decisions To Come
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
We're in the last few weeks of the Supreme Court's current term, and justices still have loads of decisions to hand down - two dozen, to be precise. And some of those may come as soon as Monday. We'll bring in NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, thanks so much for being with us.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My pleasure, as always, Scott.
SIMON: Twenty-four cases in which there are no decision. I gather a dozen could be of particular interest. Which ones do you most anticipate?
TOTENBERG: Well, there are three big ones. The first is what I call the cross case. This is a giant cross on public property in Bladensburg, Md. It's a World War I war memorial. And civil libertarians have objected to it because they see the cross as a symbol of Christianity and that it ought to be on private property, maintained with private funds, not taxpayer money. We're going to see what the court does with that. My suspicion is that they're going to let the cross stand. And whatever they write probably will have a lot of impact on religious symbol cases in the future.
And then there's a gerrymandering case from North Carolina and from Maryland - how state legislatures draw the lines, in this case, for congressional districts. And they do it usually to entrench their own political power. But it's gotten, with the advent of computers, kind of wild. And the Supreme Court is being asked again, is there any limit beyond which politicians can't go to entrench themselves in political power?
And then the last case is a test of the addition of the citizenship question on the census, a question that hasn't been there in 70 years and that opponents of the question claim would lead to a big undercount. And they say that the Trump administration is doing it for partisan reasons.
SIMON: Why are there still so many outstanding cases?
TOTENBERG: Well, I don't actually know, except one has to assume there are very big differences among the justices, between the court's five Conservatives and four Liberals - Justice Ginsburg hinted at that in a recent speech - but also, even among the Conservatives themselves, the rationales for how they're going to rule. There are rumors around that there's a lot of bad blood going on. But you couldn't tell that by what the justices say about each other, even privately when they know that they're being listened to.
SIMON: As you see it, what's at stake for the court this term?
TOTENBERG: Well, there's no secret about this. The chief justice has been very clear. He doesn't want the court to be seen as a partisan institution. The other members of the court, both liberal and conservative, go around saying that this isn't a partisan institution at all. That's the message they want to convey, which is sort of hard at the moment.
SIMON: But is that possible in this day and age, when we know by their - in their own account, conservative Republicans have tried to win elections so they can win Supreme Court appointments and you have several Democrats running for president now on the issue of enlarging the court?
TOTENBERG: You know, I wish I knew whether it's even possible anymore to have a Supreme Court that doesn't look partisan. I had always thought you really could. But if you look at the two cases before the court that are overtly partisan, the gerrymandering case and the census case, both would structurally allow Republicans to entrench their power even more than they have in the last decade or two. And I think it gets harder to sell the court as an apolitical institution, which is, as I said, what every member of the Supreme Court still tries to do.
You know, I interviewed Justice Stevens about a month and a half ago for a piece about his new book. And even he, a lifetime Republican, although deemed a Liberal on the court, appointed by President Ford, said it was hard for him to see the current court as apolitical. He said he still has hope, and so do I, but it's difficult.
SIMON: NPR's Nina Totenberg, thanks so much.
TOTENBERG: Thank you, Scott.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.