A Supreme Deadlock

The U.S. high court hands down its first 4-4 ruling since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last month.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

It only took a nine-word sentence to summarize an eight-justice paralysis: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court.”

The U.S. Supreme Court handed down a 4-4 decision in Hawkins v. Community Bank of Raymore on Tuesday, its first deadlocked result since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February. Senate Republicans have vowed to not confirm any replacement until a new president is inaugurated, meaning that today’s ruling is likely to be the first of many.

The Court did not indicate how the individual justices voted in Hawkins. Scalia’s death left the high court evenly divided between the four liberal and four conservative justices. Most cases on the Court’s docket are not resolved by 5-4 votes along those divisions, but major ones often are. A series of clashes on abortion rights, affirmative action, public-sector unions, and other high-profile issues were likely to be decided along a 5-4 vote.

Hawkins is a low-profile case by comparison. But it signals how that paralysis can extend beyond politically controversial issues and into the mundane workings of American law. The appeal was brought by Valerie Hawkins and Janice Patterson, who sought to challenge a bank’s requirement that they guarantee their husbands’ business loans. This, they said, made them liable for the loans and damaged their credit.

The two women argued they counted as “applicants” for the loan under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, and thus qualified for its protections. The Community Bank of Raymore countered that the Federal Reserve rule enforcing the Act interpreted the statute too broadly, and the lower courts agreed.

The Act forbids creditors from discriminating against “any applicant, with respect to any aspect of a credit transaction” on a number of grounds, including sex and marital status. Congress enacted the law to stop lenders from denying credit to married women unless their husbands cosigned or guaranteed the loan—a common practice in that era that put women who sought to build their own credit profiles at a disadvantage. The Federal Reserve rule known as “Regulation B,” which implemented the Act, effectively banned the practice by interpreting “applicant” to include guarantors.

But a three-judge panel in the Eighth Circuit ruled against Hawkins and Patterson, noting that the text of the Act itself defines an applicant as “any person who applies to a creditor directly for an extension, renewal, or continuation of credit.” Courts typically give wide deference to a federal agency’s interpretation of federal statutes, but the panel concluded that a person “is an applicant only if she requests credit” under a plain reading of the Act.

The 4-4 split between the justices resolves in favor of the lower court, meaning the Eighth Circuit’s decision becomes the final word in Hawkins. But it only carries weight as precedent within the Eighth Circuit’s jurisdiction. Other courts, including the Sixth Circuit and a few state supreme courts, deferred to Regulation B’s interpretation of “applicant” when hearing similar cases. Those rulings remain intact.

The practical effect of the justices’ deadlock is straightforward. A guarantor in Tennessee, which falls under the Sixth Circuit’s jurisdiction, counts as an applicant under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act. A guarantor just across the Mississippi River in Arkansas, where the Eighth Circuit holds sway, doesn’t count as one. As arcane as this might seem, it’s the kind of disagreement in federal law the Supreme Court exists to resolve. And thanks to a single indefinite vacancy, it can’t.