Supreme Court 'Splintered,' But Only for the Conservative Decisions

April 29th, 2008 1:10 AM

The United States Supreme Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law today in a 6-3 decision. In an earlier post, Ken Shepherd pointed out that Associated Press reporter Mark Sherman framed the ruling as "splintered." While the four conservative Justices joined in the majority opinion, the decision itself was written by liberal Justice John Paul Stevens, and so Sherman's terminology is questionable at the very least.

But this isn't the first time Sherman has used the phrase "splintered." When the Supreme Court issued its death penalty ruling two weeks ago, Sherman wrote:

U.S. executions are all but sure to resume soon after a nationwide halt, cleared Wednesday by a splintered Supreme Court that approved the most widely used method of lethal injection.

Incredibly, Sherman framed this decision as being made by the "conservative court led by Chief Justice John Roberts," even though it was a 7-2 decision.

Digging even deeper, it is obvious that Sherman's approach to Supreme Court rulings is to frame conservative decisions as being the result of a divided court.

The conservative argument prevailed in last summer's school districting case by a 5-4 vote. Sherman described it this way.

A half-century after the Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools, sharply divided justices clamped new limits Thursday on local school efforts to make sure children of different races share classrooms ...

Justices disagreed bluntly with each other in 169 pages of written opinions on whether the decision supports or betrays the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling that led to the end of state-sponsored school segregation in the United States.

Likewise, when partial birth abortion was struck down last year, Sherman wrote:

The decision pitted the court's conservatives against its liberals, with President Bush's two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, siding with the majority.

But what happens when the Court makes a liberal ruling? Last April, the Court issued a "global warming" ruling that established that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. While the ruling was 5-4, in this instance there was no discussion of a "splintered" decision, or of a "divided" court. In fact the dissenters were not even mentioned until the 17th paragraph of the story.

Sherman's main thrust for this story was to emphasize the politcal defeat of the Bush Administration (the article is titled "High Court Rebukes Bush on Car Pollution").

In a January 2007 decision, the Court struck down portions of California's criminal sentencing laws. Once again, a 6-3 decision authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not described as "divided," nor did Sherman's article discuss the political leanings of the Justices.

Again the dissenters were mentioned only in passing, as a short quote was attributed to Justice Samuel Alito in the 9th paragraph. The other two dissenters were not identified.

Another Sherman story in December ("Court: Judges Can Reduce Crack Sentences") follows the same pattern in which two 7-2 liberal leaning sentencing decisions were reported without comment as to any significant conflict among the Justices.

With his reporting, Sherman props up the Court's liberal decisions, while inviting his readers to question the legitimacy of the conservative decisions.