By Benjamin Goad - 07/02/14 06:01 AM EDT
President Obama has endured a painful Supreme Court term, suffering a series of bitter defeats at the hands of justices who, at times, took direct aim at his policies.
The White House has had losses in cases involving campaign finance, organized labor and the limits of presidential power, among others.
“This was a rough year for the administration,” UCLA law professor Adam Winkler said.
Winkler and other court watchers, however, say the damage could have been far worse, given the makeup of the conservative leaning court.
On paper, the Obama administration actually fared better in the just-concluded term than it has in the last few years, with the solicitor general prevailing 60 percent of the time, Winkler said.
But, with some notable exceptions, the White House found itself on the losing end of most of the term’s biggest cases.
And that included the most closely watched case of the season: the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s birth control mandate for employers.
The opinion in the case generally known as Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, though far less consequential to ObamaCare, stood in stark contrast to the court’s decision two years earlier to uphold the law’s individual mandate.
That ruling, a triumph for Obama, had enraged the political right, with feelings of betrayal deepened by the fact that Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, authored the opinion.
The Roberts court, however, has returned to favor within conservative circles, following the recent decisions. Business groups and congressional Republicans issued a cascade of statements on Monday, praising both the Hobby Lobby ruling and a second opinion chipping away at public union power.
In the latter case, Harris v. Quinn, the court ruled that certain state workers could not be forced to pay union fees.
The two rulings came days after the court deemed as unconstitutional a series of appointments President Obama made two years ago to fill vacancies at the National Labor Relations Board.
The finding that Obama overstepped in making the recess appointments when the Senate was in session was seen as a direct rebuke to Obama’s exertion of executive authority.
Tom Goldstein, an attorney who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court and publishes the SCOTUSblog providing analysis of the high court, called the ruling Obama’s most definitive loss of the term.
By Goldstein’s tally, the administration participated in 7 of the 9 biggest cases before the Supreme Court and lost all but two.
“They did take some significant hits,” he said. “But it really wasn’t their fault.”
The government, Goldstein said, found itself on the losing end of arguments that any administration would have been compelled to make, including the unsuccessful defense of police authority to search cellphones of people they arrest.
Earlier this term, the court struck down decades-old limits on an individual’s aggregate political contributions over the course of a single election cycle in a case known as the Federal Election Commission v. McCutcheon.
Though Obama administration officials did not impose the campaign finance regulations, the case involved “defending values and policies that they hold dear,” said Tom Donnelly, counsel for the left-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center.
Donnelly described the outcome of that case as an “important loss” for the administration.
Still, Donnelly and other observers of the court say many of the losses could have been much worse for the administration, had conservatives had their way. In McCutcheon, for instance, Justice Clarence Thomas had sought to do away with campaign contribution limits.
In the Harris case, organized labor technically lost but averted a ruling that some viewed as a potential “kill shot” for public unions. In Hobby Lobby, the court ruled against Obama but offered the administration an alternative way to accomplish its goal of providing female workers access to free contraception.
Donnelly said the rulings come amid “a lot of boundary testing” on the part of conservative litigants and legal groups.
The White House pushed back this week against assertions that the term saw the court push the law in a conservative direction.
“I’d hesitate to make a broad assessment like that from this podium,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said.
Indeed, the Obama administration claimed some victories at the court in recent months.
In April, the court upheld a rule allowing the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate power plant pollution that crosses state lines.
That case was followed this month with a mixed ruling that found EPA overreach under the Clean Air Act but largely upheld the agency’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
Citing a litany of rulings that, though cheered by conservatives, would ultimately do little to impede the administration’s agenda, Marty Lederman, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, said suggestions of a rout this term were greatly exaggerated.
“The government did as well as it could have, given the docket,” Lederman said. “In case after case, the government either prevailed or avoided results that would have been seriously damaging.”