When the Supreme Court issued its ruling shortly before midnight Wednesday blocking coronavirus restriction imposed on religious gatherings in New York, it became immediately clear how much of an effect President Donald Trump has had on the highest court in the land. The court voted 5-4 in favor of an injunction to block the restrictions from being enforced in what marked one of the first key moves by the newest appointee to the court, conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett. She was the one who cast the deciding vote, putting Chief Justice John Roberts on the side of the dissenters. As might be expected, the other two justices that Trump appointed also sided with the majority.
The way in which Roberts suddenly found himself on the dissenting side was a stark change for the chief justice, who had become used to holding the controlling vote in close cases. And it is a sign of things to come and how Roberts may no longer hold that key position that he had become used to over the past few years. Yet beyond the numbers game, the six opinions the court issued on Wednesday also shone a light on the apparent tensions between justices. At certain points, the justices didn’t just express disagreements with their colleagues’ legal rationales, but also got into personal recriminations. Trump’s first appointee to the Supreme Court, Justice Neil Gorsuch, was particularly poignant as he said that Roberts’ previous move to defer to states on these kinds of issues was “mistaken from the start” and should have never been the standard. “We may not shelter in place when the Constitution is under attack,” Gorsuch said in his concurring opinion. “Things never go well when we do.”
The president was clearly happy with the ruling and tweeted a report of the decision with a two-word, all-caps message: “HAPPY THANKSGIVING!”
In a call with reporters, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo dismissed the ruling as having no real practical effect and made clear that as far as he saw it the decision was a way for the justices to make their political views evident. “I think that Supreme Court ruling on the religious gatherings is more illustrative of the Supreme Court than anything else,” Cuomo told reporters. Under the rules that are in effect in New York, areas are categorized depending on the severity of coronavirus infections. Houses of worship in the worst-affected areas could only open at 25 percent capacity and with a maximum of 10 people. But the area referred to in the case that the Supreme Court heard was no longer classified as a “red zone,” which is the classification used for the worst-affected areas. “It’s irrelevant from a practical impact because the zone that they were talking about has already been moved. It expired last week. I think this was really just an opportunity for the court to express its philosophy and politics,” Cuomo said.
Even if it might not have an effect on the area in question, the Supreme Court ruling is likely to have a deep impact on numerous lawsuits that have been filed in several states around limits on houses of worship. Experts say as many as 20 ongoing cases could be affected by the ruling, reports the Wall Street Journal.