Gorsuch shows how much one vote matters on Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Neil Gorsuch’s role in his first full term on the Supreme Court offers a striking illustration of the difference a single justice can make, and why both sides are gearing up for a titanic fight over replacing retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The term that roared to its finish Wednesday — before it was overshadowed by Kennedy’s announcement of his retirement — was a triumphal one for conservatives. In Kennedy’s last term and the first for Gorsuch, Kennedy’s former law clerk, both justices were part of 5-4 conservative majorities to uphold President Donald Trump’s travel ban, deal labor unions a major financial setback, affirm Ohio’s aggressive purge of its voter rolls and prohibit millions of workers from banding together to complain about pay.

Those cases probably all would have come out differently — if they even had made their way to the Supreme Court — had the seat Gorsuch holds instead been filled by Judge Merrick Garland, whom President Barack Obama nominated after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death in 2016.

There were 14 cases in all in which conservatives prevailed and liberals were in dissent. By contrast, the liberal justices were in the majority in just three ideologically divided cases in which one conservative joined them. The most significant of those was a digital-age privacy decision saying that police generally need a warrant for cellphone company records showing where a phone was used.

Beyond the votes in individual cases, the makeup of the court in part determines the kind of cases people push to get in front of the justices. The case that ended labor unions ability in nearly two dozen states to collect fees from government workers they represent is a prime example.

When Scalia died, the remaining eight justices divided 4-4 in an earlier case about the same issue. After Trump won election, anti-union groups pressed to get a new case to the high court quickly.

Abortion foes could follow a similar path with Kennedy’s successor on a court that could be more willing to sustain abortion restrictions.

“Conservative legal activists have jumped on the opportunity by bringing cases that continue to push the law in a conservative direction,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center. “If we get a justice even more reliably conservative than Justice Kennedy, I’d expect that to be an even more extreme trend.”