Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Court rulings: It's GOP v. Democrats

By Jeffrey Toobin
updated 8:43 PM EDT, Mon June 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeffrey Toobin: Court rulings reflect ideology of presidents who appointed each justice
  • Toobin: 5 GOP appointees for Hobby Lobby, 4 Democratic appointees against it
  • Toobin: All 3 women on court ruled against Hobby Lobby; union ruling fell along same lines
  • Toobin: Dissent said Hobby Lobby got a license to discriminate. What's next?

Editor's note: Jeffrey Toobin is CNN senior legal analyst and author of "The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Elections have consequences.

That's the message of Monday's rulings from the Supreme Court -- and, indeed, all decisions by nine justices whose ideologies reflect, with considerable precision, the views of the presidents who appointed them. Both the Hobby Lobby case -- which concerned the intersection of women's rights, religious freedom, and Obamacare -- and the Harris case, about the future of labor unions, were 5-4 decisions.

Jeffrey Toobin
Jeffrey Toobin

Five Republican appointees for the owners of Hobby Lobby (and against the unions). Four Democratic appointees for the Obama administration (and for the unions). Notably, too, three of those four Democratic appointees are women. (Of 112 people who have served on the Supreme Court, four have been women.)

As in so many cases before the justices, the legal issues in these cases were as much political as legal. Indeed, just like politicians, the justices try to frame the questions before them in as politically appealing ways as they can.

In Hobby Lobby, the issue was whether a privately held company, whose owners have strong religious convictions against abortion, can refuse to pay for certain forms of birth control which they regard as immoral. "The owners of many closely held corporations could not in good conscience provide such coverage," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, and to force them to do so would violate federal law.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, for the dissenters, framed the issue in an entirely different way. She and her colleagues saw Hobby Lobby as asking for -- and receiving -- a license from the court to discriminate against women. What, she asked, about companies that have religious objections to treating African-Americans equally -- or gay people? And, she asks, "how does the Court divine which religious beliefs are worthy of accommodation, and which are not?"

The same kind of conflict undergirds the union case. In that case, home care workers who are covered by a union contract demanded the freedom to refuse to pay dues -- which the conservative majority granted them. Is this, as Alito (again) held, simply a matter of preserving the freedom of speech rights of these employees? Or is it, as the dissenters, led by Justice Elena Kagan, said, a vehicle to starve unions of the dollars they need to survive -- and negotiate precisely these kinds of contracts?

Toward the end of this year's term, there were more unanimous opinions than usual -- including rulings about the right of police officers to search the personal electronic devices of persons under arrest, and about the legitimacy of the use of recess appointments by the Obama administration.

But no one should be misled. When it comes to the most fundamental issues before the court, the most important factor is not the legal arguments but the identity of the judges -- and the presidents who appointed them. Republicans vote one way, Democrats another. It's true in Congress, and it's true on the other side of First Street as well -- in the marble temple of the United States Supreme Court.

Read CNNOpinion's new Flipboard magazine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT