WASHINGTON — Abortion, guns and religion — a major change in the law in any of these areas would have resulted in a fateful Supreme Court term. During its first full term, the court’s conservative majority ruled on all three cases and made other important rulings limiting the government’s regulatory powers.
And he didn’t signal any plans to slow down.
With former President Donald Trump’s appointees in their 50s, the six-judge conservative majority looks poised to retain control of the court for years, if not decades, to come.
“It was a revolutionary term in many ways,” said Tara Leigh Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The court massively changed the constitutional law in a very important way.”
Its remaining opinions have been delivered, the court began its summer recess on Thursday and the judges will then return to the courtroom in October.
The annulment of Roe v. Wade and the end of a nearly half-century abortion rights guarantee had the most immediate impact, shutting down or severely restricting abortions in a dozen states within days of the ruling.
By expanding gun rights and finding religious discrimination in two cases, the judges also made it harder to uphold gun control laws and reduced barriers to religion in public life.
Setting significant new limits on regulatory authority, they limited the government’s ability to tackle climate change and blocked an effort by the Biden administration to get workers in big corporations vaccinated against COVID-19.
The remarkable week in late June in which the gun, abortion, religion and environmental cases were decided at least partially masked other notable events, some of them troubling.
New judge 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 move that will not change the balance between liberals and conservatives on the ground.
In early May, the court had to deal with the unprecedented leak of a draft opinion in the abortion case. Chief Justice John Roberts almost immediately ordered an inquest, which the court has remained silent ever since. Shortly after, workers surrounded the court with an 8ft high fence in response to security concerns. In June, police arrested a gunman late at night near the home of Judge Brett Kavanaugh in Maryland and charged him with attempted murder of the judge.
Kavanaugh is one of three Trump appointees along with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett who have fortified the right side of the court. Greg Garre, who served as President George W. Bush’s lead Supreme Court attorney, said that when the court began its term in October, “the biggest question was not so much which direction the court was headed. , but how fast he was going. answers that question quite resoundingly, which is quick.”
The speed also revealed that the chief justice no longer has the control over the court he had when he was one of the five conservatives, not the six, Garre said.
Roberts, who favors a more progressive approach that could bolster perceptions of the court as an apolitical institution, notably broke with other conservatives in the abortion case, writing that there was no need to overturn Roe, which he called a “serious shake-up” to the legal system. On the other hand, he was part of all the other ideologically divided majorities.
While the past year has revealed the limits of the chief justice’s influence, it has also exposed the grip of Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s most senior member. He wrote the decision expanding gun rights and the abortion case marked the culmination of his 30-year Supreme Court effort to get rid of Roe, who had been around since 1973.
Abortion is just one of many areas in which Thomas is willing to abandon legal precedent. The judges buried a second of their rulings, Lemon v. Kurtzman, in ruling for a high school football coach’s right to pray on the 50-yard line after games. It’s not clear, however, that other judges are as comfortable as Thomas with reversing past rulings.
The abortion and gun cases also seemed contradictory to some critics in that the court gave the state authority over the most personal decisions, but limited the state’s power in regulation. firearms. One distinction that majorities in these cases have drawn, however, is that the Constitution explicitly mentions guns, but not abortion.
These decisions do not seem particularly popular with the public, according to opinion polls. Polls show a sharp drop in the court’s approval rating and people’s trust in the court as an institution.
Judges in past tribunals have acknowledged a concern about public perception. As recently as September last year, Judge Amy Coney Barrett said, “My purpose today is to convince you that this court is not made up of a bunch of partisan hacks.” Barrett spoke at a center named for Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who engineered his speedy confirmation in 2020 and was seated on the stage near the judiciary.
But conservatives, minus Roberts, dismissed any concerns about perception in the abortion case, said Grove, a professor at the University of Texas.
Judge Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion that “not only are we not going to focus on this, but we shouldn’t focus on this,” she said. “I’m likeable as an academic, but I was surprised to see this coming from so many real-world judges.”
Liberal justices, however, have repeatedly written that the court’s aggressiveness in this epic tenure is hurting the institution. Judge Sonia Sotomayor described her fellow judges as “a restless, 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 makeup of this Court has changed.
In 18 rulings, at least five conservative justices joined to form a majority and the three liberals dissented, about 30% of all cases the court heard during its tenure which began last October.
Among these, the court also:
— Made it harder for people to sue state and federal authorities for violating constitutional rights.
– Raised the bar for defendants claiming their rights were violated, ruling against a Michigan man who was shackled at trial.
– Restricted how some death row inmates and others serving long prison terms can pursue allegations that their attorneys have done a poor job representing them.
In emergency appeals, also called the “mock” court record because judges often provide little or no explanation for their actions, conservatives ordered the use of congressional districts for this year’s election in Alabama and Louisiana, though lower federal courts found they likely violated federal suffrage law by diluting the power of black voters.
Judges will hear arguments in the Alabama case in October, among several high-profile cases involving race or elections, or both.
Moreover, when the judges resume hearing arguments, the use of race as a factor in college admissions is on the table, just six years after the court reaffirmed its legality. And the court will consider a controversial Republican-led appeal that would dramatically increase the power of state lawmakers over federal elections, at the expense of state courts.
These cases and cases at the intersection of LGBTQ and religious rights and another major environmental case involving development and water pollution are also likely to result in ideologically split decisions.
Khiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, has linked voting rights to abortion cases. 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 dishonest of Alito to suggest that everything Dobbs does sends this issue back to the states and that people can fight in the state about whether to protect fetal life or best interests of the pregnant person,” Bridges said. . “But that same court is actively involved in making sure states can disenfranchise people.”
Bridges also said the results aligned almost perfectly with Republican policy goals. “Whatever the Republican Party wants, the Republican Party is going to get out of the tribunal that is currently constituted,” she said.
Defenders of the court rulings said the criticism missed the mark because it confused politics with law. “Supreme Court decisions are often not about what the policy should be, but rather about who (or what level of government or what institution) should make the policy,” wrote the Princeton University political scientist, Robert George, on Twitter.
At this time, there is no indication that the judges or the Republican and conservative interests that have brought so many high-profile cases to court have any intention of cutting their veils, Grove said.
That’s partly because there’s no realistic prospect of judicial reforms that would limit the cases judges could hear, impose term limits or increase the size of the Supreme Court, said Grove, who served to President Joe Biden’s bipartisan Supreme Court Commission on Judicial Reforms.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
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