Piece of Cake: What’s Behind Supreme Court Opinions?


On June 4, 2018 the United States Supreme Court issued a decision in the controversial case, Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The case concerned a baker, Mr. Jack Phillips, a devout Christian, who in 2012 declined to create a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding on the basis that doing so would require him to express himself artistically in a way that was inconsistent with his religious beliefs. At the time, gay marriage was not legally recognized in Colorado. However, the state had an anti-discrimination act regarding goods and services available to the public. See C.R.S. 24-34-601. The Commission determined that Mr. Phillips violated the anti-discrimination act. On review, the Supreme Court held that the Commission violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause by egregiously treating Mr. Phillips’ case with hostility towards his religious beliefs. The Free Exercise Clause requires that states not base regulations and laws on hostility towards a religious belief, but that they remain neutral. The Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s decision stating that Mr. Phillips had been “entitled to a neutral decision-maker who would give full and fair consideration to his religious objection as he sought to assert it . . . ” Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colo. Civil Rights Comm’n, 201 L.Ed.2d 35, 46 (U.S. 2018).


Masterpiece Cakeshop, cake, Supreme Court
Jack designing cake

Critical to the effect of this decision on similar future cases is that the Court did not decide for the states the limits and boundaries between anti-discrimination and freedom of speech. Rather, the Court narrowly held that these disputes “must be resolved with tolerance, without undue disrespect to sincere religious beliefs . . . ” while avoiding “subjecting gay persons to indignities when they seek goods and services in an open market.” Id. at 50. In other words, the Supreme Court simply held that state courts must be neutral decision-makers who faithfully uphold the entire Constitution.


Nevertheless, the case was not decided without much disagreement among the nine Supreme Court Justices, despite the final 7-2 decision. With three concurring opinions (one such written and joined by two of the four liberal Justices) and one dissenting opinion, it is no wonder why the case has caused such controversy. What might cause even more shock is that Justice Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, also wrote the 2015 landmark decision which legalized gay marriage nationwide. Because of the different opinions, this case becomes an effective model for answering the following questions. How do Supreme Court Justices decide who writes each opinion? Why do they write concurring and dissenting opinions? What precedential value do concurring and dissenting opinions have?


The Majority Opinion is Assigned by the Chief Justice


After oral arguments, the Justices convene in a conference to express how each of them would decide the case; the conference is followed by a vote. Once the votes have been counted, the Chief Justice assigns a Justice in the majority to write the opinion of the Court or does so himself. However, if the Chief Justice is not in the majority, the most senior Justice in the majority has the authority to assign writing the opinion of the court. In Masterpiece Cakeshop, Chief Justice Roberts was a part of the majority and assigned writing the opinion of the court to Justice Kennedy. They were joined by Justices Breyer, Alito, Kagan, and Gorsuch. Often, a Justice in the majority will agree with the outcome of the case, but not with the majority’s reasoning for it. That Justice may write a concurring opinion, which can be joined by other Justices. Here, Justice Kagan filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Breyer joined. Justice Gorsuch filed another concurring opinion, joined by Justice Alito. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in the judgment, but only concurring in part as to the majority’s rationale. Any Justice who disagrees with the majority judgment can write a separate dissenting opinion. Here Justice Ginsberg, who was joined by Justice Sotomayor, filed a dissenting opinion.
Often, the opinions reference each other, each Justice arguing their reasoning in comparison to another’s. The following sections briefly describe the main points of each opinion and illustrate how the Justices agree and disagree with each other.


Majority Opinion:


Written by J. Kennedy; Joined by JJ. Roberts, Breyer, Alito, Kagan, Gorsuch

“While it is unexceptional that Colorado law can protect gay persons in acquiring products and services on the same terms and conditions as are offered to other members of the public, the law must be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion.” Id. at 37. The commissioners made hostile comments about Mr. Phillips’ faith, casting doubt on the fairness and impartiality of the Commission’s adjudication of the case. Justice Kennedy compared this case to another where other bakers prevailed before the Commission despite refusing to create a cake for a client (because it depicted anti-gay messages, which the bakers opposed) while being willing to sell other products with a different message to the same customers. The cases are all too similar, he argues, and yet the Commission reached opposite decisions.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Kagan; Joined by J. Breyer

“[A] proper basis for distinguishing the cases was available—in fact, it was obvious.” Id. at 50. The three bakers, Justice Kagan argues, would have denied making the anti-gay cake for any customer, regardless of his religious beliefs. However, Mr. Phillips would have created a wedding cake for an opposite-sex couple, but refused to create one for the same-sex couple. Nevertheless the commission made their decision with hostility and bias.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Gorsuch; Joined by J. Alito
Pushing back against the Kagan and Ginsberg opinions, Justice Gorsuch argues that the different bakers’ cases were legally almost identical and should have resulted in the same determinations. He argues that the Commission treated them differently because they deemed Mr. Phillips’ beliefs offensive. The courts should not be deciding what is offensive. “[T]he place of secular officials isn’t to sit in judgment of religious beliefs, but only to protect their free exercise. Just as it is the ‘proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence’ that we protect speech that we hate, it must be the proudest boast of our free exercise jurisprudence that we protect religious beliefs that we find offensive.” Id. at 55.


Concurrence:


Written by J. Thomas; Joined by J. Gorsuch
Justice Thomas addresses the freedom of speech argument that Mr. Phillips made. He believes creating a custom wedding cake for a couple is “expressive conduct” and should therefore be protected by the First Amendment. “States cannot punish protected speech because some group finds it offensive, hurtful, stigmatic, unreasonable, or undignified.” Id at 65.


Dissent:


Written by J. Ginsberg; Joined by J. Sotomayor

Justice Ginsberg argues that neither the commissioners’ statements about religion nor the commission’s prior treatment of other bakers amounts to hostility towards religion. The Court’s decision is therefore unjustified. She argues that the other bakers refused to make an offensive cake because of the cake itself, but that Mr. Phillips refused to bake the wedding cake because of their sexual orientation.


Precedential Value of Concurring and Dissenting Opinions


While lower courts must follow the Supreme Court’s majority opinion (under stare decisis), there are times when a concurring opinion, and even a dissenting opinion, can influence future decisions and the development of law. Overtime, the view of the courts might therefore shift drastically.


As for the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, it will take careful consideration by lower courts of the decision as they apply it to similar cases. Courts will need to balance applying the law in a manner that is neutral towards religion while protecting people from discrimination.