The Supreme Court recessed for its long winter break Monday in a rare mood of unanimity, issuing five dissent-free opinions on key issues ranging from workplace discrimination to anti-dumping trade enforcement.
The unanimous rulings continue a recent pattern that may be moving the Court closer to Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s stated goal of greater collegiality. That goal has proven elusive since he joined the Court in 2005, with justices often reluctant to cede ground for the sake of joining the majority.
But so far this term, 10 of the 15 signed opinions have been unanimous, and the last eight decisions have been issued without dissents. Four rulings this term have been split 5-4, and one came out 6-3. It may be too early to declare a trend, and as Court-watcher David Garrow observes, rulings without dissents are easier to wrap up early in the term. Nonetheless, Garrow of the University of Cambridge says, "Monday's set of rulings send a striking message of judicial consensus while belying any presumption of ideological division or conflict."
Another rare happenstance on Monday: three of the decisions were authored by a single justice -- namely David Souter, who, deservedly or not, has a reputation as a slow writer.
The rulings issued Monday were:
• Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County (pdf), a Title VII workplace discrimination case that will increase protection for employees against retaliation by employers.
Vicky Crawford, a school district employee, was fired after answering questions during an internal investigation into allegations that another employee had sexually harassed school workers. The school district argued Crawford was not protected by Title VII's shield against retaliation for employees who "opposed" unlawful conduct. But Souter said that result would be "freakish," and the entire Court agreed that she was covered.
James Burns Jr., an employment lawyer at Reed Smith, says the ruling is "not a surprise" and follows the Court's trend of supporting employees in many workplace bias cases in recent years. "I don't see the tide shifting" toward employers even with the conservative Roberts Court, Burns says. He suggests the decision may make employers "more selective" in deciding which workers to interview in internal investigations, knowing that retaliation claims could follow.
• United States v. Eurodif (pdf), which will have "far-reaching implications for international trade," according to Steptoe & Johnson partner Sheldon Hochberg, who represented one of the plaintiffs in the case.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, rejecting arguments made by the Commerce Department and other federal agencies, had ruled that the law allowing duties to be imposed on imported merchandise sold below fair value did not apply to "low enriched uranium" used by the nuclear power industry. French company Eurodif had argued that it was selling services, not goods, and thereby fell outside the law.
But the Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the Commerce Department's interpretation that enriched uranium is covered under the anti-dumping law is "eminently reasonable."
Hochberg, who represents USEC, the only American uranium enrichment factory, which supported the U.S. stance, says the ruling closes an important loophole that importers were exploiting. "This is the first time the Court has addressed the anti-dumping law," he notes.
Mayer Brown's Duane Layton, an international trade specialist, also says the ruling is significant because the justices reminded lower courts of the "critical importance" of deference to federal agencies in trade issues.
• Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan (pdf), in which the Court sided with DuPont's plan manager in a dispute over how to distribute the pension benefits of a divorced employee after death. "The Court has clarified a very tangled area of the law that has given rise to a lot of litigation," says Mark Levy of Kilpatrick Stockton, who won the case for DuPont.
• Van de Kamp v. Goldstein (pdf), a strong endorsement of prosecutorial immunity from liability for official actions.
• Arizona v. Johnson (pdf), a win for police on the Fourth Amendment issue of whether a pat-down search is permissible when the officer has reason to believe a suspect is armed and dangerous, but no cause to believe a crime has been or is being committed.
The Supreme Court returns to the bench Feb. 23.