President Obama celebrated the Supreme Court’s decisions Wednesday on gay marriage, but overall it has been a rocky term before the court for his administration, winning just more than a third of the cases in which it was involved.
Lawyers said the government traditionally averages about a 70 percent winning percentage before the high court. Its advantages are so great that the Justice Department’s chief Supreme Court attorney, the solicitor general, is dubbed the “10th Justice.”
But during the 2012-13 term, which began in October and ended Wednesday, the court rejected Mr. Obama’s arguments on property rights, affirmative action, voting rights and other issues.
“Despite some notable victories, the Obama administration has had an unusually poor batting average at the high court,” said Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA. “Like last year, the Obama administration lost more cases than it won.”
By Mr. Winkler’s count, the Obama administration has won 39 percent of the cases in which it has been a party in the litigation, and won 50 percent of the cases in which the government filed a “friend of the court” brief backing one side or the other.
Mr. Winkler said a good portion of the administration’s poor batting average can be traced to ideological differences between the Obama administration and the five conservative-leaning Supreme Court justices.
Indeed, the administration backed the losing argument in 11 cases that were decided 5-4, and one case that was decided 5-3.
“What arguments can you make to a court that is determined to overturn the Voting Rights Act?” Mr. Winkler said. “The court is hostile to the administration’s arguments and the administration is not presenting the best arguments. So there is lot of blame to go around.”
Still, not all of the cases were ideological battles.
The Obama administration was on the losing end of several 9-0 decisions, including last year when the court held that churches have the right to make employment decisions free from government interference over discrimination laws, and said an Idaho couple could challenge the Environmental Protection Agency over government claims that they could not build a home on private property that was deemed a protected wetland.
The nine justices also agreed this month to clear the way for California raisin growers to challenge the constitutionality of a Depression-era farming law that makes them keep part of their annual crop off the market.
The losses continued to pile up for Mr. Obama this week after the court went against the wishes of the White House in cases that involved affirmative action in Texas, private property rights in Florida and a challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Ilya Somin, a constitutional law professor at George Mason University, said it is striking to take into account the number of times the Obama administration has been on the losing end of unanimous decisions.
“When the administration loses significant cases in unanimous decisions and cannot even hold the votes of its own appointees — Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan — it is an indication that they adopted such an extreme position on the scope of federal power that even generally sympathetic judges could not even support it,” said Mr. Somin, adding that presidents from both parties have a tendency to make sweeping claims of federal power. “This is actually something that George W. Bush and Obama have in common.”
The president scored at least a partial victory Wednesday in perhaps the biggest cases of the term when the court invalidated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage for the purpose of federal law as a legal union between one man and one woman. The court also ruled that the supporters of California’s Proposition 8, the ban on gay marriage that voters passed by referendum in 2008, did not have the standing to argue the case in court.
Relaying Mr. Obama’s reaction, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president described the DOMA ruling as “historic” and the Proposition 8 ruling as a “tremendous victory.”
The rulings, though, were not complete victories for Mr. Obama’s stances. The court did not decide whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right or address whether the California law is unconstitutional.
“They made an argument in the Prop 8 case; it was rejected,” Mr. Winkler said. “They made an argument in the DOMA case; it was rejected. So they are happy with the results of today’s cases, but their arguments were not accepted by the court.”