What’s next for the Supreme Court? Abortion rights, gun laws and more

Presidential immunity, abortion, guns. In the coming month, the Supreme Court will issue important rulings on all these and many other issues. Dockets extremely laden with controversial legal issues leave justices far behind where they would normally be at this point in their terms.

Typically, by the second week of June, there are four to six really big cases left unresolved. But this year there are well over a dozen of them. And although the court almost always finishes its work by the end of June, this year even some judges privately predict that the work will not end until July.

Perhaps the most headline-grabbing case yet to be resolved is the examination of former President Trump’s claim of immunity from criminal charges for trying to overturn Biden’s 2020 election victory. It is the most important test of presidential power since the Supreme Court’s 1974 ruling . decision ordering President Nixon to turn over specific – and ultimately incriminating – tape recordings of his White House conversations to the Watergate special prosecutor.

Trump is also involved in a separate case involving the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, in this case involving a federal statute that makes obstruction of an official proceeding a crime. It is the most serious crime charged with many of the rioters, and Trump was also charged under the act.

In addition to these cases, there are other major controversies: two over abortion, two over gun regulations, and a number of regulatory cases in which business interests are asking the Supreme Court to limit the federal government’s regulatory powers.

Abortion and gun cases in court

The most publicized abortion case tests the FDA’s rules on prescribing and dispensing abortion pills. Since the court overturned Roe v. Wade two years ago, more than half of women terminating pregnancies in this country were using the pill, and anti-abortion groups are trying to limit their availability. Abortion opponents question not only the FDA’s approval of the drug mifepristone in 2000, but also the FDA’s decisions to make access to the drug easier, such as allowing prescriptions to be filled in pharmacies instead of in a doctor’s office.

The second abortion case involves a federal law intended to ensure that hospitals do not turn away patients who need emergency care. Specifically, the issue is whether the law requires abortion in emergency situations, when it is necessary to save not only the mother’s life but also her health.

The gun cases before the court involve challenges to two very different federal laws. First, it is a crime for a person who is subject to a domestic violence court order to possess or possess a firearm. The second is a federal ban, initiated by then-President Trump, on so-called bump stocks, devices that can transform legal semi-automatic weapons into illegal machine guns that can fire up to 800 rounds per minute.

“Respecting Chevron” and social media platforms are also penalized

Less visible, but perhaps more far-reaching than any one of these cases, are a series of cases brought by business and conservative groups that aim to disempower what they call the “administrative state.” The current Supreme Court, with a conservative majority that includes three Trump appointees, has been very receptive to many such challenges.

The most consistent is the attempt to debunk something called “Chevron deference.” This doctrine, adopted by the court 40 years ago, states that if the meaning of a statute is ambiguous, courts should defer to regulators’ interpretation of the law – assuming that the agencies have the expertise necessary to fill in the gaps to carry out broad congressional mandates. If the court abandons this doctrine, and all indications are that it will, the consequences will almost certainly be severe, limiting the ability of federal agencies to issue regulations on air and water pollution, food safety and health, and basically everything.

Social media platforms are also trending. Two cases involve laws passed in Texas and Florida that limit the choices companies can make about what to include on their platforms. The companies argue that they are like newspapers or broadcast networks and that they have a First Amendment right to decide what to publish and what not to publish. States oppose companies that are more like utilities and are subject to regulation.

A completely different issue concerns the case where municipalities’ rights to clear homeless encampments conflict with people’s right to sleep outdoors if there is no shelter.

A provision of the tax code poses a constitutional challenge. It may seem boring, but former House Speaker Paul Ryan warned that a court invalidation of the provision could unravel a third of the tax code.

With all this still pending, the court has resolved about half of the cases before it, but only two have made it to anyone’s list of major cases. In one of them, the court ruled that states could not ban candidate Donald Trump from voting, and in the other it upheld the funding mechanism for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The Trump ballot case was resolved quickly, in less than a month, but the CFPB case was the second to be heard this term, on October 3, and was not resolved until mid-May. Even more puzzling, the decision, written by Justice Clarence Thomas, was decided by a 7-2 majority.

So what took so long?

It is unclear why the court is so supported. Theories include that even the Court’s conservatives are having difficulty reaching consensus, that some justices are slow to formulate dissenting opinions, or that some of the security measures adopted after the unprecedented leak of the Dobbs abortion decision are slowing the process. Or maybe it’s just the number of really important cases in which the court considers this designation.

So what can you expect in the coming weeks? If you look at the numbers on which justices wrote the most majority opinions and which the least, you’ll notice that two more liberal justices – Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan – wrote the most, which means that perhaps not many more majority opinions to writing, only objections. At the same time, however, the Court’s conservatives, especially Chief Justice Roberts, have written the least, which means they likely have many more majority opinions ready to be withdrawn.

All this is not good news for court liberals. In fact, in a moment of unusual honesty, Justice Sotomayor recently told an audience at Harvard: “There are days when after a case is announced, I come into my office, close the door, and cry.” She added: “There will probably be more” days like this.

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