Talking Points

The 1 issue that hardens the Supreme Court's ideological split

The Supreme Court isn't so ideologically scrambled, after all.

Justices handed down two decisions Thursday morning, on the final day of the court's term — one upholding a pair of Arizona election laws that challengers said discriminated against minorities, and another striking down a California policy requiring charities and nonprofits to disclose their major donors. In both cases, the split was identical: The court's six Republican-appointed justices were in the majority, and its three Democratic-appointed justices dissented.

Such partisan divisions were expected when then-President Donald Trump last year appointed Amy Coney Barrett to the high court and cemented a conservative majority. During her first term, though, the court has produced some unexpected results. It handed down more unanimous decisions than it had in years, and came up with a surprising 7-2 decision that preserved Obamacare. A few observers suggested there might actually be a 3-3-3 ideological split among justices, and some conservatives made the case that liberal fears of a Republican supermajority on the court had been overblown — the three Trump-appointed justices, National Review's Jim Geraghty wrote Tuesday, "could help create a less intensely divided Court."

Perhaps not. The split in Thursday's rulings was stark and predictable. What made them different from the other cases this term? The topic at hand was electoral power. The Arizona laws were openly designed to give the GOP an edge in that state's elections, while the California disclosure policy was challenged by conservative advocacy groups interested in keeping their financial backers in the shadows. 

It makes sense that the court's ideological borders would reassert themselves in these cases. Probably the No. 1 issue dividing Republicans and Democrats these days is democracy itself — Democrats want more, and the GOP wants less, and in both cases take those positions out of electoral self-interest. "An abiding principle that unites the entire GOP from McConnell to Trump to Roberts: making things harder for voters and easier for donors," MSNBC's Chris Hayes observed after the court's verdicts were announced. On issues from health care to religious liberty and beyond, there is room for justices across the political spectrum to freelance. When it came to the future of America's elections, though, everybody fell in line.