Update on the Supreme Court

Dahlia LithwickDahlia Lithwick recaps the highlights of the last Supreme Court term and gives a brief preview of the term to come.  The program was moderated by SSV board member Grace Zisk.  Interesting questions and answers follow her talk.  Listen to her lively presentation on the podcast.


Ms. Lithwick is a senior editor at Slate Magazine, and in that capacity, writes the “Supreme Court Dispatches” and “Jurisprudence” columns. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and Commentary, among other places. She won a 2013 National Magazine Award for her columns on the Affordable Care Act. She has been twice awarded anOnline Journalism Award for her legal commentary and was the first online journalist invited to be on the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press. Ms. Lithwick has testified before Congress about access to justice in the era of the Roberts Court. She has appeared on CNN, ABC, The Colbert Report, and is a frequent guest on The Rachel Maddow Show. Ms. Lithwick earned her BA from Yale University and her JD degree from Stanford. She is currently working on a book about the four women justices of the United States Supreme Court.

Program Summary

Dahlia Lithwick summarized the major legal decisions from the court’s 2013 term and predicted what cases the court might take on in 2014. Virginia’s ban on gay marriage could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court next year. Quoting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Lithwick said the “court can’t duck the issue for gay marriage anymore.” She said she doesn’t know which case will come up to the nation’s highest court in the 2014 term — which is slated to begin in October — but one will, and Virginia is “one of the best candidates.”

Lithwick used three trends to describe the current court: Incrementalism; faux-nanimity — a term she coined; and a divide on “identity politics.” The first, she said, addresses the small steps the court took that could have large impacts. “This was a year where they could have done a lot and they did a little in a lot of areas of the law,” she said. “But they certainly teed up the next case or the case after that for doing a lot.” For example, in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court decided that closely held for-profit corporations didn’t have to provide contraceptives to their employees under the Affordable Care Act, if it violated their religious beliefs. While the decision was meant to be narrow, Ginsburg warned that “you have no idea what you’ve just let loose,” Lithwick said.

When the court meets again next month, one of the first cases it will hear is Holt v. Hobbs, which addresses whether making prisoners cut their beards violates their religious freedom. The case is considered to be a continuation of the issues addressed in the Hobby Lobby case.

She did encourage conversation about whether justices should serve life sentences, given that people live longer and are appointed younger now than when the Constitution was written. Lithwick said it’s inappropriate that some liberals are asking Ginsburg to step down while President Barack Obama is still in office so he can appoint a liberal justice. Charlottesville resident Mary Kathryn Hassett said this was the most interesting argument Lithwick made. “This longevity was not foreseen by the founders, that is sort of a problem, but I don’t think she’s too old,” Hassett said.

Although citizens don’t get to directly engage with the court, Lithwick said Americans need to be more aware of what is happening there. “I do think there is, in good and bad ways, the idea that once you put on that black robe and you take up residence in front of that red curtain, you’re magic,” she said. “We have the most mystified, miracular court; it’s quite amazing in a democracy. I think that you have to understand that these are people too, that confirmations matter, that we need to really care, either way, because it’s a hugely consequential thing that doesn’t happen by people with magic, but through constitutional democratic processes that we control.”

The Daily Progress has a more detailed summary of Ms. Lithwick’s presentation.  Click here to read it.

Comments are closed.