WASHINGTON — Supreme Court justices found more common ground than usual this year, and nowhere was their unanimity more surprising than in a ruling that police must get a judge’s approval before searching the cellphones of people they’ve arrested.
The term that just ended also had its share of 5-4 decisions with the familiar conservative-liberal split, including Monday’s ruling on religion, birth control and the health care law.
But the 9-0 cellphone decision last week may be the most consequential of the justices’ 67 rulings this term. It signaled a high degree of skepticism about the government’s authority, without any need to satisfy an impartial judge, to sweep up vast quantities of information that individuals store on computers and cellphones, as well as other records that companies keep online.
The scope of that ruling will await future cases, including possible challenges to NSA’s surveillance and collection of massive amounts of Americans’ telephone records. But the justices indicated that constitutional privacy protections, embodied in the Fourth Amendment, will apply strongly to cases involving computers and digital storage, said Elizabeth Wydra, the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center’s chief counsel.
Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion for the court “was a broad and sweeping ruling in favor of privacy,” Wydra said.
The cellphone case was one of 42 in which the court was unanimous about the outcome, either 9-0 or 8-0 in cases where a justice sat out. That level of consensus is far higher than in recent terms.
The cases include high-profile disputes in which the administration could not attract a vote for its preferred result, even from the two justices appointed by President Barack Obama: Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. The court struck down Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, the 35-foot buffer zone around Massachusetts abortion clinics and the criminal conviction under a chemical weapons treaty of a woman who tried to poison her husband’s lover.