DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the organization’s stance on any political issue. CAIR-OK is a nonpartisan 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.)
This summer has been a whirlwind of decisions at the nation’s highest court which address some of the most controversial topics that affect Americans today. The impacts include the nationwide right to abortion, expanding the rights of gun owners to carry firearms in public, and sharply curtailing the Biden administration’s power to combat climate change.
The Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case was one of the most noteworthy cases of the summer. In May, a leaked draft opinion obtained by Politico sparked protests all over the nation because of the Court’s decision to go backwards by taking away the right to an abortion that were granted by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. The final ruling was a 6-3 decision where the Court ruled that a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks is constitutional and overturned the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973. The Court gave the power to the states to determine their own abortion laws. When Roe v. Wade was overturned, a trigger law went into effect in Oklahoma which banned all abortions at conception. Trigger laws take place when a legislative body makes a law that can’t be enforced unless a key change in federal law occurs, which in this case, was the Supreme Court’s decision. Abortion in Oklahoma is illegal in every case except in a case where a woman’s life is at risk. Anyone who performs an abortion at any point after fertilization in Oklahoma can now be subject to penalties ranging from two to five years in prison.
While Dobbs returned that power to the states by allowing voters to elect their officials and lawmakers who would then pass legislation, SCOTUS did quite the opposite with NY State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen. In that case, the Court ruled that states with strict limits on carrying guns in public violate the Second Amendment. The Court said that law-abiding Americans have a right to carry handguns outside the home for self-defense. New York’s proper cause requirement violates the Fourteenth Amendment in that it prevents law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their right to keep and bear arms. In six states, including New York, the government conditions issuance of a license to carry on the citizen’s showing of some additional special need for self-protection. This case expanded the right for guns nationwide because the “may issue” states would need to turn into “shall issue” states where authorities must issue concealed carry licenses whenever applicants satisfy certain threshold requirements.
Justice Breyer in the dissent for NY State Rifle & Pistol Association says that the Court burdens the states’ efforts to address some of the dangers of gun violence. He argues that firearm regulation should be resolved by the States’ legislatures rather than the Courts. He points out that States may be willing to tolerate different degrees of risk and therefore choose to balance the competing benefits and dangers of firearms differently.
SCOTUS seems to be handling the two rights with opposite results. Gun rights are expanded by not giving states the freedom to have their own gun laws customed to their geographic area and population. On the other hand, SCOTUS restricted abortion rights by giving states the right to regulate pregnancies. Abortion rights will be decided through a democratic process, but guns will not be. The seeming inconsistency in the Court’s decisions has baffled many legal analysts. Commentators have pointed out the hypocrisy within the Court’s decisions. This decision comes just weeks after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, TX where 19 children and 2 adults were shot and killed by a perpetrator with an AR-15.
In West Virginia v. EPA, the Court ruled on whether Congress really delegated power to the Environmental Protection Agency. In this case’s ruling, the Court curtailed the EPA’s ability to regulate the energy sector, limiting it to measures like emission controls at individual power plants. Because of the lack of a clear congressional authorization, the Court found that Congress could not have intended to delegate a decision of such economic and political significance to an agency in a cryptic fashion. This rolled back the EPA’s ability to reduce the carbon output of existing power plants by shifting pollution activity from dirtier to cleaner sources. This was a blow to the Biden Administration’s goal of running the nation’s power gid on clean energy by 2035. In her dissent, Justice Kagan says that Congress did intend to give the agency that power in Section 111 of the Clean Air Act. The dissent accuses the majority of being a textualist only when being so suits it.
The Court’s spotty reliance on precedent, statutory interpretation rules and history, and congressional intent signal a shift towards change. The majority’s conflicting definition of “plain meaning” seems to align with a politically conservative agenda.
Some of the decisions SCOTUS has been grappling with have a common denominator of having ties to religion. Decisions for lack of support for abortions, same sex marriages, contraception often comes from religious beliefs. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, the Court ruled that a football coach at a public high school had a constitutional right to pray at the 50-yard line after his team’s game. In Carson v. Makin, the Court ruled that a Maine program that excludes religious schools from a state tuition program is a violation of the free exercise of religion. Both cases were a 6-3 in which Justice Roberts, Kavanaugh, Barrett, Gorsuch, Alito, and Thomas were the majority six.
Many analysts suggest that the Court’s decisions this summer skew further toward the conservative than ever before. From the decision to grant certiorari through to the final decision, the Court signals its intent to adjudicate cases which align with a pro-business, pro-religion agenda. In 62% of the decisions, conservatives have prevailed. The latest SCOTUS decisions have been victories for conservative agendas on abortion, guns, immigration, religious freedom, and environmental regulations. SCOTUS has shown itself to be pro-business and pro-religion. On the other hand, liberals and moderates have been uneasy. A recent Gallup poll shows that SCOTUS’s rating has been the lowest it ever has been, at 25%. Ironically, even though the Court is much more involved in American life right now than it was years or decades ago, this has resulted in the public having less confidence in the court system.
A major change this summer is shifting away from following precedent, causing many to feel distrust towards the Court. By overturning Roe, the court erased a half-century of court precedents and eliminated the right to abortion. By upholding a football coach’s right to pray on the 50-yard line, the conservative majority ignored precedent that drew a clear line separating church and state. Many are fearing that SCOTUS might be in a hurry, leading to uncertainty about what other precedents might get overturned.
While SCOTUS is on recess until October, the nation is awaiting big decisions that will be made this fall. Moore v. Harper will examine whether to grant state legislatures significantly more power over federal elections, including the power to implement its own congressional map. Merrill v. Milligan, another election related case, will be about whether Alabama can draw a congressional map that packs many Black votes into a single congressional district, effectively diluting their political power. 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis is a free speech case where a Colorado-based web designer says she should not be forced to create websites for same-sex weddings under state law. The Court will be hearing a pair of cases challenging the consideration of race in college admissions processes. Next term will show if SCOTUS plans on following the same pattern from this summer by setting new precedents or if SCOTUS will consider the public’s feedback and regain their trust.