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Death, Politics, and Some Law: The Supreme Court in 2016

2016 was not a typical year for the Supreme Court. The passing of Justice Antonin Scalia early in the year upended normal Supreme Court practice, as his vacated seat became part of an unprecedented struggle over naming a replacement justice, leaving the Court short-staffed and deadlock-prone.

The fact that Justice Thomas spoke from the bench shortly after Justice Scalia's death was just another sign that the world had been turned upside down. Throw in an almost unheard of public spat between a sitting justice and a presidential candidate, and you have one of the more bizarre years in the Supreme Court's history. And somewhere in there, some cases were decided, too. Here's a quick look back on the strange scene that was the Supreme Court in 2016.

Goodbye Scalia, Hello Senate Inaction

Justice Scalia's passing on the eve of Valentine's Day, 2016, deprived the Court of one of its most recognized and respected voices. Whether you agree with Scalia's politics or judicial philosophy or not, there's no denying that few justices have left such a strong mark on the Court and American jurisprudence generally. Few have delivered as many zingers as Justice Scalia, either.

But Scalia's passing lead to almost immediate political fighting, as Senate Republicans declared that they would not move forward on any potential replacements until after the election. And they meant it, denying President Obama's SCOTUS nominee, the D.C. Circuit's Merrick Garland, a hearing for 289 days and counting.

That obstinate inaction was without precedence, shocking many in the legal community, but it worked. The next Supreme Court justice will be chosen by President Trump, rather than Obama.

Deadlocks Reshape the Court

Left with only eight justices, once rare Supreme Court deadlocks became relatively common in 2016. The first deadlocked decision came a little over a month after Justice Scalia's death, in a one-sentence per curiam opinion in Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore.

And the deadlocks kept coming. An important case over public unions resulted in a deadlock a week later. A much-anticipated suit over Obamacare and birth control was punted, likely to avoid a split Court. Obama's immigration reform was killed by a 4-4 Court. And even now, important cases continue to be pushed back, another sign that the justices are worried that the empty seat on the bench will leave them unable to come to a binding decision.

The Presidential Race Leaves Its Mark on the Justices

The judicial system is often the least political of the three branches of government, but 2016 saw politicking reach all the way up to the Supreme Court. We're not just talking about the fight over Merrick Garland, either.

Justice Ginsburg broke with longstanding tradition this year to weigh in on Donald Trump's candidacy, saying that she could not imagine the Court or the country under a Trump presidency. "For the country, it could be four years. For the court, it could be -- I don't even want to contemplate that," she said, before joking about moving to New Zealand should Trump win.

Justice Ginsburg soon apologized, saying she would be more circumspect in the future. Trump won, after airing his grievances against the Notorious RGB in one of the presidential debates, and Ruth has yet to move to New Zealand.

Of course, it wasn't all death, deadlocks, and politics. Among all the turmoil, the Supreme Court continued to hear important cases and issue influential decisions -- the most important of which we'll cover in a future post. In the meantime, here's hoping for a smoother 2017.

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