The justices have yet to schedule three cases for arguments that were granted full review in January, about a month before Justice Antonin Scalia died. The cases involve separation of church and state, class-action lawsuits and property rights, issues that often split liberal and conservative justices.
Their absence from the calendar of cases that are being argued this fall suggests that the justices believe they may divide 4 to 4, and are waiting for a ninth justice to join them.
"The court doesn't like to do a lot of work and have a 4-4 result. There may be a desire of the court to try to wait for the full complement of justices," said Todd Gaziano of the Pacific Legal Foundation, which is taking part in the property rights case.
The court on Friday released its argument calendar for late November and early December. It includes redistricting disputes from North Carolina and Virginia, and a Texas death row inmate's appeal.
Senate Republicans have refused to act on Judge Merrick Garland's nomination to fill Scalia's seat.
Even if Garland were to get a Senate hearing and vote after the election, if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, the earliest he could join the court would be for its January arguments. If the Senate does not act on Garland's nomination in its post-election "lame duck" session, the vacancy could last into the spring, meaning almost all of the court's term would go by with eight justices.
In the meantime, several justices have commented on the challenges posed by the absence of one justice.
"It's much more difficult for us to do our job if we are not what we're intended to be — a court of nine," Justice Sonia Sotomayor said Monday at the University of Minnesota.
The justices divided evenly in four cases following Scalia's death last term. A tie vote keeps in place the lower court decision that is being reviewed, without setting any nationwide law on the question at issue. It's as if the high court hadn't taken on the case in the first place.
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