Of course, that didn't stop President Obama from using the occasion Thursday to hit Republicans' continued blockade.
But really, the Supreme Court deadlock reinforces the political calculation that Republicans have been making on Garland: A deadlocked court isn't so bad. Better to take a few split decisions now than nominate someone who could tip the court in the wrong direction — and over the long term, the political heat they get for obstructing Garland will be worth the political payoff.
The "sky won't fall" with just eight on the court, read the headline of a recent Des Moines Register op-ed written by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. And the sky certainly didn't fall for Republicans on this nondecision, which was one of the most politically impactful of this all-important election year.
By deadlocking 4-4, the Supreme Court leaves in place a lower-court decision declaring that Obama exceeded his powers when he told his administration to stop deporting certain illegal immigrants. A deadlocked court actually turned out pretty nicely for Republicans.
At least, this time it did. Here's where we bring up an important caveat from Cornell law professor Josh Chafetz: Not all the deadlocks are going to go Republicans' way. A 4-4 draw earlier in the spring on public sector unions upheld a more liberal ruling, for example. And we can expect more 4-4 draws having the potential to benefit Democrats, not Republicans. That's because most of the lower courts whose decisions a deadlocked Supreme Court would defer to are now majority-Democratic appointees.
But Republicans' calculation is clear: It's either a 4-4 court or adding an Obama nominee who, logic suggests, might side with Obama on most major issues. It's safe to say they'll take the 4-4 court anytime over a more-decisive court that might decide 5-4 against them. And now they have evidence to point to that they made the right decision.
Of course, as we've talked about before, their blockade, which is now in its third month, isn't without political downside. Since Justice Antonin Scalia died in February, polls have established that a majority of Americans say Congress should at least consider Obama's nominee to fill the vacancy. Republicans justify their decision by arguing that it's an election year, and the new president should nominate the next justice, but a 10-month vacancy certainly has required some defending.
Republicans haven't just said they won't confirm Garland, after all; they haven't even given him hearings to make his case. Only a handful of Republican lawmakers even met with him.
And Democrats can use Thursday's nondecision, like Obama did, to push their messaging about the blockade, too.
But whether people think Garland deserves hearings or even a vote and whether the blockade might actually cost the GOP votes in November are two different things. Thus far, Garland's nomination doesn't seem to have stoked many passions outside those whose business it is to pay attention to such things.
A May New York Times/CBS News poll found independents are pretty much split on whether the Senate should confirm Garland. We saw similar numbers in March — perhaps a reason, we posited at the time, that Garland is still a relatively obscure figure. A March Gallup poll found 59 percent of Americans said they have heard or read "very little" or "nothing at all" about him.
It could also mean that most Americans just don't care enough to make a full, nine-person Supreme Court one of their top issues at the ballot box in November.
That's what Republicans have been banking on all along, and Thursday's nondecision from the Supreme Court shows the kind of political benefits that can produce.