WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s blockbuster rulings in successive days that eliminated the right to abortion nationwide and expanded the rights of gun owners illustrate how its majority broad conservative is willing to boldly assert its power.
In both decisions, conservative justices won victories long sought by right-wing activists who have spoken out against Roe v. Wade of 1973 that legalized abortion and believe the court was slow to expand gun rights.
The increasingly fast-paced court has grown increasingly willing to take on and decide decisively on contentious issues since the 2020 addition of former President Donald Trump’s third appointee, Amy Coney Barrett, gave the nation’s highest court a 6-3 conservative majority.
His appointment changed the dynamics of the court by marginalizing Chief Justice John Roberts, allowing his conservative bloc to amass the five votes needed to decide the cases without him. Roberts is considered more of an incrementalist conservative.
The two other Barrett and Trump appointees, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, had a majority in the gun decision on Thursday and the abortion decision on Friday.
The conservative majority can last for years, even decades, and has shown interest in other significant changes to the law. The court has taken up a case for trial in its next term, which begins in October, that could end race-sensitive university policies in student admissions that have been used to promote diversity on campus. Ending these affirmative action policies has been another coveted goal of the Conservatives.
Carolyn Shapiro, a professor at the Chicago-Kent College of Law and former legal assistant to liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, expressed concern that the conservative majority is out of step with the American people. Shapiro noted that Trump was able to make three nominations despite failing to win the popular vote in the 2016 election and that Republican senators pushed through the nominations with a majority vote.
“The makeup of the court has always been healthier when it more closely reflects the makeup and opinions of the American people,” Shapiro said.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll indicates that a majority of Americans support abortion rights and believe easy access to guns is one of the reasons there are many mass shootings.
“The court is doing things that I think are dangerous to the country, dangerous to the rights of individuals, dangerous to democracy, and dangerous to the maintenance of its legitimacy,” Shapiro added.
Before the death of conservative Judge Antonin Scalia in 2016 and the subsequent addition of Trump appointees, the court had been more cautious in deciding what types of cases to hear.
He had a 5-4 Conservative majority. But one of the conservatives, Justice Anthony Kennedy, has at times sided with the liberals on contentious “culture war” issues, including abortion, affirmative action and LGBT rights. This has led the court to sometimes avoid contentious cases or consider litigation with lower stakes.
Jennifer Mascott, a professor at Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University who worked for conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, dismissed the idea that the court is dominated by legal activists. Mascott said that in the abortion case, the court did not ban the procedure, but rather let the states legislate as they saw fit.
“He’s getting out of the process. He’s not telling the states what to do,” Mascott said.
The role of Roberts, who sought to defend the court as an institution and avoided dramatic moves, was diminished. Roberts joined the majority in full in the firearms case. In the abortion case, he agreed with the majority on upholding the Mississippi ban on abortion at 15 weeks gestation at issue in the case, but not on overturning Roe. .
The court’s forceful involvement in matters of national importance goes beyond abortion and guns, as the upcoming college admissions case illustrates.
Next term, he will also hear a major new legal battle pitting religious beliefs against LGBT rights in a case involving the freedom of speech of an evangelical Christian web designer saying she cannot be forced into under a Colorado anti-discrimination law to produce websites for same-sex marriages.
Judges still have seven cases to decide before the end of the current term by the end of the month, including one involving a public high school football coach who prayed on the field with players after games – a decision which could promote religious rights. In another, the court could limit the ability of President Joe Biden’s administration to tackle climate change.
The climate case is an example of a target for conservative justices: the power of federal agencies in what has been dubbed a “war on the administrative state.” For example, the court in January blocked the Biden administration’s COVID-19 vaccination or testing mandate for companies with at least 100 employees, saying the agency issuing the order had no not the necessary authority.
Before Kennedy retired, the court was already supporting religious protests. This has deepened since then, including rulings supporting religious groups challenging pandemic-related restrictions in 2020. On June 21, the court further reduced the separation of church and state in a ruling that approved increased public funding of religious entities. The football manager’s decision could add to this trend.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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