WASHINGTON ( Associated Press) – Abortion, arms and religion – a major change in the law in any of these areas would have caused a fatal term for the Supreme Court. In its first full term together, the court’s conservative majority in all three ruled and issued other important decisions limiting the government’s regulatory powers.
And it showed no plans to slow down.
With three former President Donald Trump nominees in their 50s, it looks like the Conservative majority of six justices are ready to take control of the court for years to come, if not decades.
“It was a revolutionary term in so many ways,” said Tara Leigh Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The court has largely changed constitutional legislation in major ways.”
Issued his remaining opinions, the court began its summer recess on Thursday, and the judges will return to the courtroom next October.
The overthrow of Roe v. Wade and the termination of a nearly half-century guarantee of abortion rights had the most immediate impact, closing or severely limiting abortions in about a dozen states within days of the decision.
In the extension of gun rights and the finding of religious discrimination in two cases, the judges also made it more difficult to enforce gun control laws and lower barriers to religion in public life.
By imposing significant new limits on regulatory authority, they curbed the government’s ability to fight climate change and blocked a Biden administration effort to get workers at large companies vaccinated against COVID-19.
The remarkable week at the end of June in which the firearms, abortion, religion and environmental issues were decided, at least partially obscured other notable events, some of them worrying.
New judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in as the first black woman in court on Thursday. She replaced outgoing judge Stephen Breyer, who has served nearly 28 years, a switch that will not change the balance between liberals and conservatives in court.
The court had to deal with the unprecedented leak of a draft opinion in the abortion case in early May. Chief Justice John Roberts almost immediately ordered an investigation, about which the court has since been mum. Shortly afterwards, workers surrounded the court with 8-foot-high fences in response to security concerns. In June, police arrested an armed man late at night near Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s home in Maryland, and charged him with attempted murder on the judiciary.
Kavanaugh is one of three Trump nominees along with Judges Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett who have strengthened the right side of the court. Greg Garre, who served as former president George W. Bush’s top attorney general of the Supreme Court, said when the court began its term in October, the biggest question was not so much in which direction the court headed, but how fast it goes. The term answers that question quite well, which is fast. ”
The speed also revealed that the chief justice no longer had control over the court he held when he was one of five, not six, conservatives, Garre said.
Roberts, who advocates a more incremental approach that could bolster court perceptions as a non-political institution, broke with the other Conservatives in the abortion case in particular, writing that it was unnecessary to overthrow Roe, which he called it a “serious shock.” the legal system. On the other hand, he was part of every other ideologically divided majority.
If the past year has revealed restrictions on the Chief Justice’s influence, it has also shown the influence of Judge Clarence Thomas, the longest-serving member of the court. He wrote the decision to extend gun rights and the abortion case was the culmination of his 30-year attempt in the Supreme Court to get rid of Roe, which has stood since 1973.
Abortion is just one of several areas in which Thomas is willing to reject court precedents. The judges made a second of their decisions, Lemon v. Kurtzman, compromised by a high school football coach’s right to pray on the 50-yard line after games. However, it is not clear that other judges are as comfortable as Thomas in reversing previous decisions.
The abortion and firearms cases also seemed contradictory to some critics in that the court gave the states the authority over the most personal decisions, but limited state power in regulating weapons. One distinction that drew the majority in those cases, however, is that the Constitution explicitly mentions weapons, 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 in people’s confidence in the court as an institution.
Judges of previous courts have acknowledged a concern about public perception. As recently as last September, Judge Amy Coney Barrett said: “My goal today is to convince you that this court does not consist of a bunch of biased hacks.” Barrett spoke at a center named after Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who designed her quick confirmation in 2020 and sat on the stage near the court.
But the Conservatives, minus Roberts, have rejected any concerns about perception in the abortion case, said Grove, a University of Texas professor.
Judge Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion that “not only are we not going to focus on that, we are not going to focus on that,” she said. “I’m sympathetic as an academic, but I was surprised to see it come from so many real world judges.”
However, the liberal judges have repeatedly written that the court’s aggressiveness in this epic term is damaging the institution. Judge Sonia Sotomayor described her co-judges as “a restless and newly composed court.” Judge Elena Kagan wrote in her abortion objection: “The court is reversing its course today for one reason and only one reason: because the composition of this court has changed.”
In 18 decisions, at least five conservative judges joined to form a majority and all three liberals were in disagreement, about 30% of all cases the court heard in its term that began last October.
Among these, the court also:
– Has made it more difficult for people to sue state and federal authorities for violations of constitutional rights.
Raise the bar for defendants who claim their rights have been violated, and have ruled against a Michigan man handcuffed during the trial.
– Limit how some death row inmates and others who have been sentenced to long prison terms can make allegations that their lawyers did a poor job of representing them.
In emergency appeals, also called the court’s “shadow” dossier because judges often provide little or no explanation for their actions, the Conservatives have recommended the use of congressional districts for this year’s Alabama and Louisiana elections, even if lower federal courts find that likely. violated the Federal Voting Rights Act by diluting the power of Black voters.
The judges will hear arguments in the Alabama case in October, among several high-profile cases involving race or elections, or both.
Even when the judges hear arguments, the use of race as a factor in university admissions is on the table, just six years after the court reaffirmed its admissibility. And the court will consider a controversial Republican-led appeal that would significantly increase the power of state lawmakers over federal elections, at the expense of state courts.
These and issues over the intersection of LGBTQ and religious rights and another major environmental issue involving development and water pollution are likely to lead to ideologically divided decisions as well.
Khiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley Law School, drew a link between voting rights and abortion cases. In the latter, Alito in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization wrote that abortion should be decided by elected officials, not judges.
“I find it incredibly dishonest for Alito to suggest that all Dobbs is doing is giving this question back to the states and that people in the state can fight over whether to protect their fetal life or the interests of the pregnant person, said Bridges. “But that same court is actively involved in ensuring that states can deprive people.”
Bridges also said the outcomes align almost perfectly with the Republican political goals. “Whatever the Republican Party wants, the Republican Party is going to come out of the currently compounded court,” she said.
Defendants of the court’s rulings said the criticism misses the point because it confuses policy 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,” Robert George, a political scientist at Princeton University, wrote on Twitter.
For now, there is no sign that either the judges or the Republican and Conservative interests that have brought so many of the high-profile cases to court are planning to cut their sails, Grove said.
This is in part because there is no realistic prospect of court reforms that will limit the cases the judges can hear, impose time limits or increase the size of the Supreme Court, Grove said, referring to President Joe Biden’s two-party Supreme Court Commission on Court Reforms served.
Associated Press author Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.