Supreme Court - possible for 1 judge to set conditions?

I was reading about the Supreme Court and how not all the judges agree. Usually one side will sign on to the majority opinion and the other side will write a dissenting minority opinion, but there have been several cases where there was no single majority opinion, where one of judges wrote their own independent opinion that agreed with the verdict for one side but for very different reasons. So the court ruled, but there was not a clear coherent single majority opinion.

Well I was wondering, if the rest of the judges were equally divided, could a single Supreme Court judge set a complex set of conditions, provided his opinion fits within the range of dissent between both sides?

Suppose the issue is Abortion. 4 Supreme Court justices say abortion is illegal and 4 justices say abortion is a woman’s right. But the remaining justice decides to be mischievous and use the position of his tie-breaking vote for something controversial. Harkening back to the days of Dred Scott vs Sandford as precedent, he writes a minority opinion stating that African American women should be allowed to get abortions but that White women should not be allowed. All the other judges sitting on the court are outraged by this of course, this is definitely not the ruling they had in mind.

Well my question is this: would this lone rogue judge effectively be able to write the defining opinion and decide the verdict in this situation?

No, because there’s a difference between the outcome (appeal allowed or rejected) and the reasons in support of the outcome.

There can be a majority of votes in favour of the outcome, but no majority in favour of a particular set of reasons. In that case, there is no precedent.

To change your example somewhat, suppose you get a 4-1-4 split like this:

The lower state court has upheld the state abortion statute.

• four judges on the Supreme Court give reasons that the abortion statute is constitutional, and therefore the appeal should be dismissed;

• four judges give reasons that the abortion statute is unconstitutional, and therefore the appeal should be allowed;

• one judge gives reasons that on the facts of the case, the appellant did not have standing to challenge the abortion statute, and therefore the appeal should be dismissed.

The result is that the appeal is dismissed, because five judges voted to dismiss the appeal.

There is no binding set of reasons, because there is no majority on why the appeal was dismissed.


Could the one judge decide to just commute the sentence?
So the accused was originally sentenced to 4 years, and the judge with the tie-breaking vote wants to reduce it to 1 year.

Or suppose the accused has been sentenced to death, could the Supreme Court justice with the tie-breaking vote rule that the State has to give him a choice of how he wants to be executed?

Supreme Court rulings are not the same laws passed by Congress, where everyone does a little bargaining until they can agree on a compromise.

In the case of a 4-4 abortion tie where the 5th justice insists on some weird ruling, eventually that justice is going to have to decide whether to uphold the original court case, or overrule it.

In the case of a death penalty case, the court will decide if the death penalty was properly applied. It may commute a death sentence to life imprisonment, it may decide the whole verdict was invalid, but it’s not going to arbitraily say “let’s just call it ‘time served’ and be done with it.”

Could he threaten to swing his vote if one of the parties involved (either the State or the defendant) does not follow some bizarre court order?

I know judges do this all the time, they issue court orders to do all sorts of things, because they have the power to arbitrarily jail people. So I was thinking, couldn’t a judge who had the deciding vote in a case also do this? Like order the State court to put the criminal in a specific prison, with the implicit threat that if the specific order is not complied with the whole verdict will be overruled. Or could the single judge order the defendant to pay a small fine in lieu of jail time? (since this one judge effectively holds the power to decide whether he will have to serve the sentence)

No, because in the SC a single judge doesn’t make an order; the court makes an order, and that requires a majority of the justices to agree. So the court’s order won’t say “the defendant is to pay a small fine instead of doing jail time” (or whatever) unless at least five of the nine justices agree that it should say that.

Someone didn’t even google what the US Supreme court does. *In a nutshell the US Supreme Court decides if a law or practice, like the death penalty or abortion, is unconstitutional or not. It is a “yes” or “no” decision. No if ands or buts. They can also decide if a challenge does not have a proper foundation and just throw out the challenge.

I may not have used proper wording and I really should go to bed but I find this board interesting most of the time. (personal opinions withheld).
*Note: I can be slightly mistaken.

Let me see if I unmderstand your scenario. The SCOTUS has to decide a case which has been argued up through the appeals system. Justice Michevious is willing to vote to affirm/deny the previous rulings, only if the other justices who feel that way will agree to add some irrelevant condition to the ruling. Otherwise, the justice will vote the other way.

Normally what happens in a 4-4 tie is that each side works to narrow the scope of the ruling, that is, to take out all the extraneous details that might kill a consensus verdict. So, in effect, SCOTUS ends up saying something like "The Court finds the ruling is applicable only in states that have approved state lotteries where the jackpot drawing is held on Tuesday and Friday rather than Wednesday and Saturday, and only when the total jackpot exceeds $57,000,000.

In that case, Justice Mischevious may say “Not good enough,” but Justice Strict Constructionist may find that the limitation better fits his interpretation of the 9th Amendment, and switches his vote.

The Supreme Court could remand a case to a lower court with instructions on what the correct ruling should be. Theoretically, if a SCOTUS Justice wanted to, he could write an opinion on a death penalty case stating that the Eight Amendment forbids jail time, and then remand the case to the lower court to issue a punishment consistent with his ruling.

To answer the question in the OP, a Justice would not be able to do this because such a specific and bizarre ruling would not be agreed upon by the other Justices. If four Justices say that the death penalty is unconstitutional, that doesn’t mean the fifth can come in and say jail time is unconstitutional. In order to prohibit jail time, you need at least five Justices to say it is unconstitutional.

Remember that the Supreme Court is an appellate court. It reviews the decisions made by other judges to say whether they followed the law properly. It does not hand down sentences. It does not hear facts in a case. It does not determine guilt or innocence. It does not send people to jail.

The Supreme Court only rules on whether the law was properly followed or interpreted. Your scenarios apply to trial judges, not to appellate justices.