‘Revolutionary’ high court on abortion, guns and more

WASHINGTON – Abortion, guns and religion – a major change in the law in any of these areas would lead to a fateful term on the Supreme Court. In their first full term together, the court’s conservative majority ruled in all three and issued other landmark rulings limiting government regulatory powers.

And it signals that it has no plans to slow down.

With three of former President Donald Trump’s appointees in their 50s, the conservative majority of six justices appears poised to retain control of the court for years, if not decades, to come.

“It was a revolutionary term in so many ways,” said Tara Lee Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas. “The court massively changed constitutional law in really big ways.”


The rest of his opinions were issued, the court began its summer recess on Thursday and the judges will return to the courtroom in October.

Overturning Roe v. Wade and ending a nearly half-century guarantee of abortion rights had the most immediate impact, halting or severely restricting abortion in roughly a dozen states within days of the decision.

By expanding gun rights and finding religious discrimination in two cases, the justices also made it harder to uphold gun control laws and reduced barriers to religion in public life.

By placing important new restrictions on regulators, they have limited the government’s ability to fight climate change and blocked efforts by the Biden administration to get workers at large companies vaccinated against COVID-19.


A remarkable week in late June, in which cases on guns, abortion, religion and the environment were decided, at least partially overshadowed other notable events, some of them alarming.

New Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson was sworn in Thursday as the first black woman on the court. She replaces retiring Justice Stephen Breyer, who served nearly 28 years, a change that will not change the balance between liberals and conservatives on the court.

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 investigation, which the court has since been silent on. Soon after, workers surrounded the court with an 8-foot-high fence in response to security concerns. In June, police arrested a gunman late at night near Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s home in Maryland and charged him with trying to kill the judge.


Cavanaugh is one of three Trump appointees, along with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett, who have bolstered the right side of the court. Greg Garr, who served as former President George W. Bush’s top Supreme Court lawyer, said that when the court began its term in October, “the biggest question was not so much where the court was headed, but how fast moves. The term answers this question pretty definitively, which is fast.

The speed also revealed that the chief justice no longer had the control over the court that he held when he was one of five, not six, conservatives, Gare said.

Roberts, who favors a more gradual approach that could strengthen the court’s perception as an apolitical institution, broke mostly with other conservatives on the abortion case, writing that there was no need to overrule Roe, which he called “a major blow ” about the legal system. On the other hand, he was part of every other ideologically divided majority.


If the past year revealed the limits of the chief justice’s influence, it also showed the power of Justice Clarence Thomas, the court’s longest-serving member. He wrote the decision expanding gun rights, and the abortion case marked the culmination of his 30-year effort at the Supreme Court to get rid of Roe, which had stood since 1973.

Abortions are just one of several areas where Thomas is willing to overrule court precedents. The justices buried a second of their rulings, Lemon v. Kurtzman, in ruling on the right of a high school football coach to pray at the 50-yard line after plays. It’s not clear, however, whether other justices are as comfortable as Thomas when overturning past decisions.

The abortion and gun cases also seemed controversial to some critics because the court gave states power over the most personal decisions but limited state power in gun regulation. One distinction the majorities in those cases made, however, is that the Constitution specifically mentions guns, but not abortion.


These decisions do not appear to be particularly popular with the public, according to opinion polls. Surveys show a sharp decline in the court’s rating and people’s trust in the court as an institution.

Judges of past courts have acknowledged concerns 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 hacks.” Barrett spoke at a center named for Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who arranged for her speedy confirmation in 2020 and sat on stage near the judge.

But conservatives, without Roberts, dismissed any concern about the perception of the abortion case, said Grove, the University of Texas professor.


Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his majority opinion that “not only will we not focus on it, we should not focus on it,” she said. “I’m nice as an academic, but I was surprised to see this coming from so many real-world judges.”

But liberal justices have written repeatedly that the court’s aggressiveness in this epic mandate is damaging the institution. Justice Sonia Sotomayor described her fellow justices as a “restless and fledgling court.” Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent on abortion, wrote: “The Court reverses course today for one reason and one reason only: because the makeup of this Court has changed.”

In 18 decisions, at least five conservative justices joined to form a majority and all three liberals dissented, roughly 30 percent of all cases the court heard in its term that began last October.

Among them, the court also:

— Made it harder for people to sue state and federal authorities for violations of constitutional rights.


— Raised the bar for defendants who claim their rights were violated, ruling against a Michigan man who was shackled during the trial.

— Limited how some death row inmates and others sentenced to long prison terms can defend claims that their attorneys did a poor job representing them.

In emergency appeals, also called “shadow” court cases because judges often provide little or no explanation for their actions, conservatives have ordered the use of congressional districts for this year’s elections in Alabama and Louisiana, even though lower federal courts have found that it likely violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diminishing the power of black voters.


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

Also, when the justices resume hearing arguments, using race as a factor in college admissions is on the table, just six years after the court upheld its admissibility. And the court will hear a controversial Republican-led appeal that would greatly increase the power of state lawmakers over federal elections at the expense of state courts.

These and cases of the intersection of LGBTQ and religious rights and another major environmental case involving development and water pollution are also likely to result in ideologically divided decisions.

Hiara Bridges, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s law school, made a connection between voting rights and abortion cases. In the latter case, Alito wrote in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health that abortion should be decided by elected officials, not judges.


“I find it incredibly disingenuous for Alito to suggest that all Dobbs is doing is turning this issue back to the states and that people can fight in the state whether to protect the life of the fetus or the interest of the pregnant woman,” Bridges said. “But the same court is actively involved in ensuring that states can disenfranchise people.”

Bridges also said the results align almost perfectly with Republican policy goals. “Whatever the GOP wants, the GOP will get out of the court as it’s currently constituted,” she said.

Defenders of the court’s rulings said the criticism was off target because it confuses politics with law. “Supreme Court decisions are often not about what policy should be, but rather about who (or what level of government, or which institution) should make policy,” Princeton University political scientist Robert George wrote on Twitter .


So far, there are no signs that either the justices or the Republican and conservative interests that have brought so many of the high-profile cases to court intend to relent, Grove said.

That’s partly because there is no realistic prospect of judicial reforms that would limit the cases the justices could hear, impose terms or increase the size of the Supreme Court, said Grove, who served on the president’s bipartisan Supreme Court Commission Joe Biden on judicial reforms.


Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

‘Revolutionary’ high court on abortion, guns and more

Source link ‘Revolutionary’ high court on abortion, guns and more

Back to top button