That could include some of the term’s biggest cases involving abortion and immigration. A tie vote would leave the lower court ruling in place and prevent the court from setting a legal precedent that applies to the entire country.
The court has already deadlocked in three cases, including a high-profile dispute over public-sector labor unions. And last week, the justices returned a dispute over access to birth control to lower courts, suggesting they could not form a majority that would have settled a major conflict over the scope of the nation’s health care law.
Breyer stressed that the court in recent years has ruled unanimously about half the time and divided 5-4 in only a small percentage of cases. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan also have said in recent public comments that the court would find its way until a ninth justice is confirmed.
Breyer did not address the partisan debate over whether the Senate should confirm Judge Merrick Garland, nominated by Obama to take Scalia’s seat. Senate Republicans have refused to hold a hearing on Garland’s confirmation or schedule a vote, saying the choice should be left to Obama’s successor.
Breyer was at the ceremony, the Burton Awards for Legal Achievement, to receive an award for his latest book about the use of foreign law in American courts.