WASHINGTON (AP) —
Abortion, guns and religion – a major law change in any of these areas would have resulted in a fatal term from the Supreme Court. During the first full term together, the court’s Conservative majority ruled in all three and issued other important decisions that limited the government’s regulatory powers.
And it has signaled that there are no plans to slow down.
With three appointees from former President Donald Trump in their 50s, the conservative majority of six judges looks poised to retain control of the court for years, if not decades, to come.
“This has been a revolutionary term in so many ways,” said Tara Leigh Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The court has changed constitutional law in a very big way.”
After the remaining opinions were issued, the court began a summer recess on Thursday and the judges will return to the courtroom in October.
Overthrowing Roe v. Wade and ending a nearly half-century guarantee for abortion rights had the most immediate impact, stopping or severely restricting abortions in about a dozen states within days of the decision.
By extending gun rights and establishing religious discrimination in two cases, the judges also made it more difficult to enforce gun laws and lowered barriers to religion in public life.
By imposing significant new limits on the regulatory agency, they curtailed the government’s ability to fight climate change and blocked an attempt by the Biden administration to vaccinate corporate employees against COVID-19.
The remarkable week of late June, when the gun, abortion, religion and environmental issues were decided, at least partially obscured other notable events, some of which were disturbing.
New judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first black woman in court on Thursday. She replaced outgoing judge Stephen Breyer, who served for nearly 28 years, a move that won’t change the balance between liberals and conservatives on the court.
At the beginning of May, the court was confronted with the unprecedented leak of a draft advice in the abortion case. Chief Justice John Roberts almost immediately ordered an investigation, which the court has been silent on ever since. Shortly afterwards, workers surrounded the court with an eight-meter-high fence in response to security concerns. In June, police arrested an armed man near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Maryland home, charging him with attempted murder of the judge.
Kavanaugh is one of three Trump appointees, along with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Comey Barrett who bolstered the right side of the court. Greg Garre, who served as the former president’s Supreme Court attorney, said that when the court began his term in October, “the biggest question was not so much which direction the court was heading, but how quickly it was moving. The term answers that question quite eloquently, and that is fast.”
The speed also revealed that the chief justice no longer has control over the court he held when he was one of five, not six, conservatives, Garre said.
Roberts, who favors a more incremental approach that could bolster the court’s perception as a non-political institution, notably broke with the other conservatives on the abortion case, writing that there was no need to topple Roe, what he called a “serious shock” to the justice system. On the other hand, he was part of every other ideologically divided majority.
If the past year has exposed limits to the Chief Justice’s influence, it also showed the reign of Judge Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the court. He penned the decision to extend gun rights, and the abortion case marked the culmination of his 30-year Supreme Court effort to get rid of Roe, which had stood since 1973.
Abortion is just one of many areas where Thomas is willing to drop court precedents. The judges buried a second of their decisions, Lemon v. Kurtzman, in the ruling for the right of a high school football coach to pray on the 50-yard line after games. It’s not clear, however, that other judges are as comfortable as Thomas is in reversing past decisions.
The abortion and gun cases also seemed contradictory to some critics, as the court gave the state authority over the most personal decisions but limited the state’s power in regulating guns. One distinction the majorities made in those cases, however, is that the Constitution explicitly mentions weapons, but not abortion.
Those decisions don’t seem particularly popular with the public, according to opinion polls. Opinion polls show a sharp decline in the value of the court and in people’s trust in the court as an institution.
Past judges have acknowledged their concerns about public perception. As late as September of last year, Judge Amy Comey Barrett said, “My goal today is to convince you that this court is not a bunch of partisan hacks.” Barrett spoke at a center named after Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who designed her quick confirmation in 2020 and sat on the podium next to the judge.
But the conservatives, minus Roberts, dismissed any concerns about perceptions 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 shouldn’t be focusing on that either,” she said. “I’m sympathetic as an academic, but I was surprised to see that coming from so many real judges.”
However, the liberal judges repeatedly wrote that the court’s aggressiveness in this epic term harmed the institution. Judge Sonia Sotomayor described her fellow judges as “a restless and newly established court”. Judge Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent on abortion, “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 judges came together to form a majority and all three Liberals disagreed, about 30% of all cases the court heard during its term that began last October.
Among these, the court also held:
— Made it more difficult for people to sue state and federal authorities for violations of constitutional rights.
– Raised the bar for defendants who alleged their rights had been violated, ruling against a Michigan man handcuffed during trial.
— Limited how some death row inmates and others sentenced to long prison terms can claim that their lawyers have misrepresented them.
In emergency appeals, sometimes referred to as the court’s “shadow list” because the judges often give 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 have determined that she likely violated federal voting rights law by reducing the power of black voters.
The judges will hear arguments in the Alabama case in October, among several high-profile cases involving race or election, or both.
Also, when the judges resume hearing arguments, the use of race as a factor in college admissions comes up for discussion, just six years after the court reaffirmed its admissibility. And the court will consider a controversial Republican-led appeal that would massively increase the power of state legislators over federal elections at the expense of state courts.
These and cases at the intersection of LGBTQ and religious rights and another important environmental case related to development and water pollution are also likely to lead to ideologically divided decisions.
Khiara Bridges, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, linked voting rights and 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 think it’s incredibly unfair of Alito to suggest that all Dobbs is doing is sending this question back to the states and that people in the state can argue about whether they want the life of the fetus or the best interests of the pregnant person.” need to protect,” Bridges said. † “But that same court is actively involved in ensuring that states can disenfranchise people.”
Bridges also said the results were almost perfectly in line with Republicans’ political goals. “Whatever the Republican party wants, the Republican party will get out of the current court,” she said.
Defenders of the court’s rulings said the criticism was wrong because it confuses policy with justice. “Supreme Court decisions are often not about what the policy should be, but rather who (or what level of government, or what institution) should make the policy,” Princeton University political scientist Robert George wrote on Twitter.
For now, there’s no sign that the judges or the Republican and conservative interests that have brought so many of the high-profile cases to court intend to trim their sails, Grove said.
That’s partly because there’s no realistic prospect of court reforms that would limit the cases the judges could hear, impose term limits or increase the size of the Supreme Court, said Grove, who was a member of the bipartisan committee of the Supreme Court. President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court on court reform.
Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
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