John O'Connor

It has been said that we are the residue of our choices. If that’s true, what should we make of the Supreme Court these days?

In its most recent session, the nation’s highest court ruled on a case about whether closely held for-profit corporations should be exempt from a law they object to for religious reasons. (As has been widely reported, the court sided with the company, Hobby Lobby). 

I’m not going to get into which side had the better argument. Both are getting plenty of media coverage for regurgitating their respective talking points. My concern is why the court dubiously opted to hear this case — while ignoring one that would have been a much more sensible choice.

For reasons that are hard to fathom, the court refused to consider whether an agreement to arbitrate disputes arising out of a resident’s nursing home care is binding on the resident’s survivors in a wrongful death action.

In rejecting a petition filed by Extendicare Homes Inc., the court decided to sidestep an issue that a) remains very much in need of legal clarification, and b) will likely show up in courts more often.

For those unfamiliar with the case, Extendicare asked the Supreme Court to resolve a conflict between a Pennsylvania appeals court’s ruling and earlier rulings related to the Federal Arbitration Act. Extendicare also asked the court to resolve competing ways some states view wrongful death claims.

It would have been helpful for the nursing home sector — and the millions of families it serves — to get some much-needed clarification on these matters. 

But while the court could have taken on this relatively straightforward contract law case, it said no thanks. Presented with the highly charged Hobby Lobby case that affected a small fraction of the nation’s employers, it jumped in.

Given the divide that exists on the court, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that ideologically driven cases seem to keep rising to the top. But it is unfortunate that they take priority over more deserving matters. Frankly, you’d think the members of our highest court would use better judgment. At the very least, they should have better things to do.