Because of the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the Supreme Court will likely be left with just eight justices for the rest of its term—four reliable liberals, three reliable conservatives, and one Anthony Kennedy, who leans to the right but has traditionally acted as the court’s swing vote. Since Senate Republicans have already said they are not in any hurry to confirm a new justice so long as President Obama remains in office, we’re probably about to witness a number of deeply important cases end in a 4-to-4 split this year.
And what happens then? When a Supreme Court case winds up in a tie, the justices typically issue a short per curiam opinion upholding the decision of the lower appeals court. That means this term’s heavily anticipated rulings on public sector unions and voting representation are likely to end in liberal victories by default. But there’s a catch: Those lower court rulings won’t apply outside of their own jurisdictions, meaning the issues could be litigated all over again in future cases brought elsewhere in the country. Meanwhile, cases on immigration and abortion rights are still sitting in Kennedy’s hands and thus could still result in at least temporary conservative victories. Finally, affirmative action as we know it could meet its end with a 4-3 decision.