March 4, 2024

Abortion, guns and religion – a major change in the law in any of these areas could have ushered in a fateful period for the Supreme Court. In their first full term together, the Court’s conservative majority ruled in all three and passed other important decisions limiting the regulatory powers of the government.

He did not indicate any plans to slow down.

With three of former President Donald Trump’s appointees in their fifties, a conservative majority of six justices appears willing to retain control of the court for years to come, if not decades.

“The term was revolutionary in many ways,” said Tara Lee Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The Court has dramatically changed constitutional law in really big ways.”

Her remaining opinions were given, the court began its summer recess Thursday, and the justices will then return to the courtroom in October.

The overturning of Roe v. Wade and the ending of a nearly half-century guarantee of abortion rights had the immediate effect, as abortions were closed or severely restricted in nearly a dozen states within days of the decision.

In expanding gun rights and creating religious discrimination in two cases, judges also made it difficult to maintain gun control laws and lowered barriers to religion in public life.

They placed significant new limits on regulatory power, curbed the government’s ability to combat climate change and blocked the Biden administration’s efforts to vaccinate workers at large corporations against COVID-19.

The remarkable week at the end of June in which the issues of guns, abortion, religion, and the environment were adjudicated, obscured, at least in part, other notable events, some of them troubling.

New Judge Kitangi Brown-Jackson was sworn in Thursday as the court’s first black woman. She replaced retired Justice Stephen Breyer, who served nearly 28 years, a shift that would not alter the balance between liberals and conservatives on the court.

In early May, the court had to deal with the unprecedented leak of an opinion draft in the abortion case. Chief Justice John Roberts almost immediately ordered an investigation, about which the court has remained silent ever since. Soon after, workers cordoned off the court with an 8-foot-high fence in response to security concerns. In June, police arrested an armed man late at night near the home of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Maryland, and charged him with attempted murder.

Kavanaugh is one of three Trump appointees with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Connie Barrett who have barricaded the right side of the court. Greg Jarre, who served as former President George W. Bush’s chief counsel on the Supreme Court, said when the court began its mandate in October, “The biggest question was not which direction the court was heading, but how fast it was going. Resounding, and it’s fast.”

Speed ​​also revealed that the chief justice was no longer in control of the court he held when he was one of five, not six, conservatives, Gary said.

Roberts, who favors a more piecemeal approach that might reinforce perceptions of the Court as an apolitical institution, has markedly broken with other conservatives on the abortion issue, writing that it was not necessary to overturn Roe, which he described as a “serious shock” to the legal system. On the other hand, he was part of every other ideologically divided majority.

If the past year has revealed limitations on the chief justice’s influence, it has also demonstrated the influence of Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s longest-serving member. He wrote the Gun Rights Expansion Resolution and the abortion case was the culmination of his 30-year Supreme Court effort to get rid of Roe, which has been in place since 1973.

Abortion is just one of several areas in which Thomas is preparing to let go of case law. And the judges buried a second of one of their decisions, Lemon v. Kurtzman, in ruling the right of a high school soccer coach praying on the 50-yard line after games. However, it is not clear that the other judges are as comfortable as Thomas in the heart of the previous decisions.

The abortion and gun issues also seemed contradictory to some critics in that the Court gave states power over most personal decisions, but the state’s power is limited in regulating guns. However, one distinction drawn by the majority in those cases is that the Constitution explicitly mentions weapons, but does not mention abortion.

Those decisions don’t seem to be particularly popular with the public, according to polls. Opinion polls show a sharp decline in support for the court and in people’s trust in the court as an institution.

In the past, court judges have acknowledged concerns about public perception. As recently as last September, Judge Amy Connie Barrett said, “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not made up of a bunch of partisan hackers.” Barrett spoke at a center named after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who designed her quick confirmation in 2020 and was seated on stage near Justice.

Grove, the University of Texas professor, said conservatives, with the exception of Roberts, dismissed any concern about perception in the abortion issue.

“We won’t just focus on that, we shouldn’t focus on that,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the majority opinion. “I’m sympathetic as an academic, but I was surprised to see that coming from so many real-world judges.”

But liberal justices have repeatedly written that the court’s aggressiveness in this epic term has been to the detriment of the institution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor described her fellow judges as a “worried and newly formed court”. Judge Elena Kagan, in her opposition to abortion, wrote: “The Court has changed course today for one reason and one reason only: because the composition of this Court has changed.”

In 18 decisions, at least five Conservative justices joined to form a majority and all three Liberals were dissenting, roughly 30% of all cases heard by the Court in their jurisdiction that began last October.

Among these, the court also:

Making it difficult for people to sue state and federal authorities for violating constitutional rights.

– Lifted restrictions on defendants who asserted that their rights had been violated, and ruled against a Michigan man who was restrained at trial.

Restrict the way in which some death row inmates and others who have been sentenced to long prison terms can pursue allegations that their lawyers have done a poor job of representing them.

In the emergency appeal, also called the court’s “shadow” file because judges often offer little or no explanation for their actions, governors ordered congressional districts to be used for this year’s elections in Alabama and Louisiana even though lower federal courts found they likely He violated federal voting rights law by weakening the power of black voters.

Judges will hear arguments in the Alabama case in October, among several high-profile cases involving race or the election, or both.

Also when judges resume hearing arguments, the use of race as a factor in college admissions is on the table, just six years after the court confirmed its permissibility. The court will consider a controversial Republican-led appeal that would significantly increase the power of state lawmakers over federal elections, to the detriment of state courts.

It is also likely that these issues, and issues at the intersection of LGBT rights, and another major environmental issue related to development and water pollution, lead to ideologically divided decisions.

Chiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, has linked voting rights to abortion issues. In the latter, Alito wrote in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that abortion should be decided by elected officials, not judges.

“I find it incredibly disingenuous that Alito is suggesting that all Dobbs is doing is bringing that question back to the states and that people can fight in the state about protecting the life of the fetus or the best interest of the pregnant woman,” Bridges said. . “But that same court is actively involved in ensuring that states can disenfranchise people.”

Bridges also said the results are almost entirely in line with the Republicans’ political goals. “Whatever the GOP wants, the GOP will get out of the currently formed court,” she said.

Defenders of the court’s decisions said the criticism misses the point because it conflates politics with law. “Supreme Court decisions are often not about what policy should be, but about who (or what level of government, or what institution) should set policy,” wrote Princeton University political science professor Robert George on Twitter.

At the moment, Grove said, there is no indication that the judges or the Republican and conservative interests that have brought so many high-profile cases to court intend to trim their sails.

This is partly because there is no realistic prospect of court reforms that would limit the cases judges can hear, impose term limits or increase the size of the Supreme Court, said Grove, who served on President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Supreme Court committee. on court reforms.


Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.

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