WASHINGTON (AP) — The overturning of Roe v. Wade and the elimination of affirmative action in higher education had been central goals of the conservative legal movement for decades.
In the space of 370 days, a Supreme Court remodeled by three justices appointed by President Donald Trump made both a reality.
Last June, the court ended nationwide abortion rights protections. Last week, the court’s conservative majority ruled that race-conscious admissions programs at the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, Harvard and the University of North Carolina, were illegal.
Precedents that had existed since the 1970s were overturned, explicitly in the case of abortion and indeed in the context of affirmative action.
“That’s what’s remarkable about this court. It brings huge changes in very salient areas in a very short time,” said Tara Leigh Grove, a law professor at the University of Texas.
As ethical questions swirled around the court and public confidence in the institution had already sunk to its lowest level in 50 years, there were other back-to-back rulings in which the six conservatives prevailed.
They rejected the Biden administration’s $400 billion student loan forgiveness program and argued that a Christian graphic designer can refuse, on free speech grounds, to design websites for couples. same sex, despite a Colorado law that prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and other characteristics.
The court, by a 5-4 vote, also sharply limited the federal government’s authority to control water pollution in certain wetlands, though all nine justices rejected the administration’s position.
The affirmative action was arguably the biggest constitutional decision of the year, and it featured fiercely opposing views from the court’s two black justices, Clarence Thomas and Ketanji Brown Jackson.
They offered very contrasting views on affirmative action. Thomas was in the majority to end it. Jackson, in his first year on the court, disagreed.
The past year has also held a number of notable surprises.
Different coalitions of conservative and liberal judges ruled in favor of black voters in an Alabama redistricting case and refused to adopt broad arguments in a North Carolina redistricting case that could have left state legislatures unchecked and unchecked. drastically alter the elections for Congress and President.
The court also ruled for the Biden administration in a fight over deportation priorities and left in place the Indian Child Welfare Act, the federal law aimed at keeping Native American children in Native families.
These cases reflected the control that Chief Justice John Roberts asserted, or perhaps reasserted, over the court after a year in which the other five Tories moved more quickly than he wished in some areas, including including abortion.
Roberts wrote a disproportionate share of the term’s biggest cases: Conservative results on affirmative action and the student loan plan, and Liberal victories in Alabama and North Carolina.
The Alabama case was perhaps the most surprising, as Roberts had consistently sought to restrict landmark voting rights law since his days as a young lawyer in the Reagan administration. As Chief Justice, he wrote the 10-year-old ruling that gutted a key provision of the law.
But in the case of Alabama and elsewhere, Roberts was among majorities that rejected the most aggressive legal arguments advanced by Republican lawmakers and conservative lawyers.
The mix of rulings seemed almost designed to counter arguments about the court’s legitimacy raised by Democratic and liberal critics — and some justices — in response to last year’s abortion ruling, among others. The narrative was amplified by published reports of undisclosed, paid air travel and fancy trips for Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito from billionaire Republican donors.
“I don’t think the court consciously takes the opinion into account,” Grove said. “But I think if there is anyone who could consciously think about these questions, it is the institutionalist, the chief justice. He is extremely concerned about the attacks on the Supreme Court.
On the last day of term, Roberts urged the public not to confuse disagreement between judges with bashing the court. “Such a misperception would be detrimental to this institution and to our country,” he wrote in the student loan case in response to a scathing dissent by Judge Elena Kagan.
Roberts resisted instituting a code of ethics for the court and questioned whether Congress had the power to impose one. Still, he said, without providing details, that the judges would do more to show they adhere to high ethical standards.
Some conservative law professors have dismissed the idea that the court bowed to outside pressure, consciously or not.
“There were a lot of external atmospheres that could have really affected the business of the court, but that’s not the case,” said Jennifer Mascott, a law professor at George Mason University.
Curt Levey, chairman of the Justice Committee, highlighted a roughly equal number of major decisions that could be classified as politically liberal or conservative.
Levey said conservatives “weren’t disappointed with that term.” Democrats and their allies “warned the nation against an ideologically extreme Supreme Court, but ended up applauding as many major decisions as they decried,” Levey wrote in an email.
But some liberal critics were not appeased.
Brian Fallon, director of the legal reform group Demand Justice, called the past year “another disastrous Supreme Court tenure” and mocked pundits who “squire for so-called silver linings in court rulings.” the Court to suggest that all is not lost, or they will. point out one or two so-called moderate rulings from the mandate to suggest that the Court is not as extreme as we think and can still be persuaded from time to time.
Biden himself said Thursday on MSNBC that the current court has “done more to unravel fundamental rights and fundamental decisions than any court in recent history.” He cited as examples the reversal of abortion protections and other rulings that had existed for decades.
Still, Biden said he thinks some members of the High Court are “beginning to realize that their legitimacy is being questioned in ways that have never been questioned in the past.”
The judges are now entering a long summer break. They return to the bench on the first Monday in October for a term that so far appears to be missing the blockbuster deals that have made the last two terms so important.
The court will consider the legal fallout from a major expansion of gun rights last year, in a case involving a domestic violence gun ban that was overturned by a lower court.
A new legal battle over abortion could also make its way through the courts in the coming months. In April, the court preserved access to mifepristone, a drug used in the most common method of abortion, while a lawsuit about it makes its way through federal court.
The Conservative majority will also have the chance to further constrain federal regulatory agencies, including a case that asks them to overturn the so-called Chevron decision that defers to regulators when seeking to give effect to general laws. , sometimes vague, drafted by Congress. . The 1984 decision has been cited by judges more than 15,000 times.
Just seven years ago, months before Trump’s surprising presidential victory, then-Judge Ruth Bader Ginsburg reflected on the term that had just ended and made two predictions. One was way off base and the other was surprisingly accurate.
In July 2016, the court had just ended a term in which judges upheld a University of Texas affirmative action plan and reversed state restrictions on abortion clinics.
His first prediction was that these issues would not return to the High Court anytime soon. His second was that if Trump becomes president, “everything is to be won.”
Ginsburg’s death in 2020 allowed Trump to put Judge Amy Coney Barrett on the court and cement conservative control.
Commenting on the student loan decision, liberal legal scholar Melissa Murray wrote on Twitter that Biden’s plan “has been absolutely overturned by the Court that his predecessor built.”
Follow AP Supreme Court coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/us-supreme-court