The court delivered a split decision in the Arizona case, upholding the most controversial provision of the law with a sort of “we’ll be watching” warning and striking three others — and prompting immediate speculation. Could the ruling provide a template for a health-care compromise? Could the justices, for instance, strike the health-care law’s unpopular insurance mandate and still find a way to make the overhaul work?
Monday’s session provided another lesson for those who were there to witness it. The justices regularly declare themselves to be warm and caring colleagues, shaking hands before each session and proclaiming that harsh words are never spoken in their private conferences.
But things can look different on the bench. Justice Elena Kagan announced the court’s decision that states may not mandate life sentences without parole for juvenile killers. Then the justice to her immediate right, Samuel A. Alito Jr., was moved for the first time in his career on the court to object from the bench.
He dressed down the logic of the opinion — and its endorsement of what he called an elitist attitude — that overturned what he said should be a prerogative of the states.
Barbara Perry, a Supreme Court expert at the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, was in the audience. “You could just hear the emotion in his voice,” she said.
Kagan, the newest justice, had not quite mastered the art of staring impassively ahead.
There was more. Justice Antonin Scalia ripped the court’s immigration ruling, with an unexpected criticism of Obama’s decision to ease deportation of illegal immigrants who were brought to the country as children.
“The president has said the new program is ‘the right thing to do’ in light of Congress’s failure to pass the administration’s proposed revision of immigration laws,” Scalia said. “Perhaps it is, though Arizona may not think so.”
Perry thought it was a “gratuitous shot,” adding that she felt the same when Obama criticized the court during the State of the Union address in 2010.
A former Supreme Court fellow who worries about the institution, she is distressed by polls that show growing public dissatisfaction with the court and an increasing number of people who think its decisions are politically motivated.
“Whenever the court enters the political thicket, it does so at its own peril,” she said.
Later Monday, Perry attended a seminar for teachers at the court, and when she emerged, after the bustle and emotion of the morning, the place had returned to its natural state.
The marble halls were empty; all was quiet. Even the plaza outside was deserted, save for a couple of television reporters completing their stand-ups. Rain began to sprinkle, she said, and then they left, too.