WASHINGTON — The highest court in the land started a new term Monday with a vacant seat, as the confirmation of nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh is on hold due to a new FBI investigation into alleged sexual misconduct.

  • Court currently divided along ideological lines
  • Term kicked off with Weyerhaeuser vs. United States Fish and Wildlife Service
  • Docket for court could change in coming months

The Supreme Court is divided down the middle right now – four conservative and four liberal justices on the bench.

But the empty ninth seat on the bench is overshadowing much of the litigating.

Following Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement this summer, the eight remaining justices kicked off October by hearing arguments for the case Weyerhaeuser v. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

All about a frog

It focuses on the dusky gopher frog, an endangered species that the government is trying to keep alive by designating land the frogs used to live on in Louisiana as a critical habitat.

The land is a key factor in the case because it has a rare type of pond — an ephemeral pond — that the frogs need to survive and reproduce.

But the owner of the property and a timber company that leases most of it says the government’s designation will cost them tens of millions of dollars. Changes will have to be made to accommodate the frogs, which currently reside in Mississippi, and potential developers may be turned off by it.

They claim the government didn’t factor those costs in. Environmentalists say they’re being small-minded.

“When they were more abundant they were part of controlling insect populations,” said Noah Greenwald, with the Center for Biological Diversity, outside the court on Monday. “They provided food to other animals and I would say they’re also an indicator of long-leaf pine ecosystems.”

Lawyers for both sides did not speak with the media after their hearing on Monday.

Uncertain future

The case kicked off a term that, as of right now, doesn’t include any major cases that might draw broad national interest.

The justices also heard arguments on Monday for a case that has to do with age discrimination in the workplace. 

But the docket could change over the next few months. And if Kavanaugh ends up getting confirmed, he’ll make the court decidedly conservative.