Washington — Abortion, guns, religion. A major change in the laws in any of these areas would have led to a fateful lapse by the United States Supreme Court, but in their first full session together, that court’s conservative majority ruled on all three cases and issued other decisions. significant decisions that limit the regulatory powers of government. And that majority has indicated they have no plans to slow down.
With three justices appointed by then-President Donald Trump in his mid-50s, the six-justice conservative majority appears poised to maintain control of the Court for years, even decades, to come.
“This has been a revolutionary mandate in many ways,” summed up Tara Leigh Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The court has radically changed constitutional law in really important ways.”RELATED
With its remaining opinions out, the country’s highest court began its summer recess on Thursday. His judges will return to work in October.
Overturn the landmark ruling Roe vs. Wade and ending a nearly half-century constitutional guarantee of abortion rights had the most immediate impact, shutting down or restricting abortions in about a dozen states within days of the decision.
By expanding gun rights and finding religious discrimination in two cases, the judges also made it harder to uphold gun control laws and lower barriers to religion in public life.
Placing crucial new limits on regulatory authority, the justices also curbed the government’s ability to combat climate change and blocked an attempt by the Biden administration to vaccinate workers at big businesses against COVID-19.
The remarkable week in late June in which the Court announced its decisions in the gun, abortion, religion and environmental cases at least partially overshadowed other notable events, some of them worrying.
New Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in Thursday as the first black woman on the court. She replaced outgoing Justice Stephen Breyer, who served nearly 28 years, a change that will not change the balance between progressives and conservatives on the court.
In early May, the court had to deal with the unprecedented leak of a draft ruling in the abortion case. Chief Justice John Roberts almost immediately ordered an investigation, which the court has said nothing about since. Shortly afterward, crews of workers installed eight-foot-high perimeter fencing around the Courthouse out of security concerns. In June, police arrested a gunman late at night near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home in Maryland and charged him with attempted murder.
Kavanaugh was one of three Trump appointees along with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, who strengthened the conservative side of the Court. Greg Garre, who served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for President George W. Bush, said that when the Supreme Court began its term in October, “the most important question was not so much which way the court was headed, but how fast went. The mandate answered that question pretty emphatically, which was quick.”
The speed also revealed that the Chief Justice no longer has the control over the Court that he held when he was one of five, not six, Conservatives, Garre added.
Roberts, who favors a more gradual approach that could reinforce the Court’s perception of an apolitical institution, sharply broke with other conservatives on the abortion case, writing that overturning the Roe ruling was unnecessary. He claimed it was a “serious shock” to the legal system. On the other hand, he was part of all the other ideologically divided majorities.
If last year revealed the limits of the Chief Justice’s influence, it also showed the influence of Justice Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the Court. He wrote the decision that expanded gun rights and the abortion case marked the culmination of his 30-year Supreme Court effort to get rid of Roe, who had stood since 1973.
Abortion is just one of several areas where Thomas is willing to throw off court precedent. The judges buried a second of his decisions, Lemon vs. Kurtzman, ruling in favor of a high school football coach’s right to pray at the 50-yard line after games. However, it is not clear that other justices are as comfortable as Thomas in overturning past rulings.
The abortion and gun cases also seemed contradictory to some critics, in that the court gave states authority over the most personal decisions, but limited state power to regulate guns. However, one distinction made by the majorities in those cases is that the Constitution explicitly mentions weapons, but not abortion.
Those decisions do not seem especially popular with the public, according to opinion polls. Polls show a sharp drop in the Court’s approval rating and in people’s confidence in the body as an institution.
Previous court judges have acknowledged their concern about public perception. As recently as last September, Judge Amy Coney Barrett said, “My goal today is to convince you that this Court is not made up of a bunch of partisan swingers.” Barrett spoke at a center that took her name from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who was behind her speedy confirmation in 2020 and sat onstage near the judge.
Conservatives, however, except for Roberts, dismissed any concerns about perception in the abortion case, said Grove, the University of Texas professor.
Judge Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion that “not only are we not going to focus on that, we should not focus on that,” he said. “I’m sympathetic as an academic, but I was surprised to see that coming from so many real-world judges.”
Progressive justices, however, repeatedly wrote that the court’s heavy activity in this epic session was damaging the institution. Judge Sonia Sotomayor described her fellow judges as “a restless and newly constituted Court.” Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent on abortion, wrote: “The Court is changing 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 progressives disagreed, roughly 30% of all the cases the Court heard in its session that began in October last year.
Among these, the nation’s highest court also:
— Made it more difficult for people to sue state and federal authorities for violations of constitutional rights.
— Raised the cap on defendants who say their rights were violated, ruling against a Michigan man who was handcuffed during trial.
— Limited how some death row inmates and others sentenced to long prison terms can file claims that their attorneys did a poor job of representing them.
In emergency appeals, also called “shadow” court filings because justices often provide little or no explanation for their actions, conservatives ordered the use of congressional districts for this year’s elections in Alabama and Louisiana, even though lower federal courts found they likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of black voters.
Justices will hear arguments in the Alabama case in October, among several high-profile cases related to race, elections or both.
Also, when the justices hear arguments on the table again, it will be the use of race as a factor in college admissions, just six years after the court reaffirmed its validity. The Court will also weigh a controversial Republican-led appeal that would vastly increase state lawmakers’ power over federal elections, at the expense of state courts.
These and other issues are likely to lead to ideologically divided decisions, as in the case of the intersection of LGBTQ and religious rights and another major environmental case related to development and water pollution.
Khiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law, drew a link between the right to vote and abortion cases. On this last issue, Alito wrote about the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that abortion should be decided by elected officials, not judges.
“I find it incredibly misleading for Alito to suggest that all Dobbs is doing is putting this question back on the states and that people can fight in the state over whether they should protect fetal life or the interest of the pregnant person,” Bridges said. “But that same court is actively involved in making sure that states can deprive people of their rights.”
Bridges added that the results lined up almost perfectly with the Republicans’ political goals. “Whatever the Republican Party wants, the Republican Party is going to get it out of the currently constituted Court,” he said.
Defenders of the Court’s decisions argue that the criticism misses the point because it confuses politics with law. “Supreme Court decisions are often not about what the policy should be, but about who (or what level of government or what institution) should make the policy,” Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton University, tweeted.
For now, there is no sign that the justices or the Republican and conservative interests that have brought so many of the high-profile cases to court intend to slow down, Grove added.
That’s in part because there’s no realistic prospect of judicial reforms that limit the cases judges can hear, impose term limits or increase the size of the Supreme Court, said Grove, who served on the bipartisan judicial reform commission. of President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court.