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Monday, August 8, 2022

US Supreme Court ‘lurches’ to the right

An abortion rights activist raises their fist outside the US Supreme Court

WASHINGTON – Abortion, guns, religion — a US Supreme Court remade by Donald Trump has veered sharply to the right, raising questions about its legitimacy and apprehension about other hot-button issues.

“What’s next?” asked Kim Boberg after the nation’s highest court, in a 6-3 ruling, struck down half a century of constitutional protections of abortion rights.

The 49-year-old Boberg was among the hundreds of protesters gathered on Friday outside the court, kept away by metal barricades symbolizing the gulf between the institution and a majority of Americans.

Steven Schwinn, a law professor at the University of Illinois Chicago, said the court had initially moved “incrementally” under Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative nominated in 2005 by Republican president George W. Bush.

No longer.

“With a six-justice conservative majority on the court, we’re starting to see it lurch sharply to the political right,” Schwinn said.

Never more so than in the past few days.

On Tuesday, the court said public funds can be used to support families sending children to religious schools, a case challenging longstanding principles of separation of church and state.

On Thursday, the court — just weeks after two horrific mass shootings — said Americans have a fundamental right to carry a handgun in public.

And on Friday, the court overturned “Roe v. Wade,” the landmark 1973 decision enshrining a woman’s right to an abortion.

The rulings were at odds with the views of most Americans who, according to opinion polls, favor stricter gun laws and back legalized abortion.

Even before the series of blockbuster decisions, public confidence in the court was at a historic low.

In a June 1-20 Gallup poll, only 25 percent of US adults surveyed said they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in the court, down from 36 percent a year ago.

– ‘Crisis of legitimacy’ –

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said the Supreme Court is going through a “self-inflicted crisis of legitimacy.”

“The justices look like political actors,” Tobias said.

Tracy Thomas, a law professor at the University of Akron, said Americans have long “relied on the court to be an objective decisionmaker of true legal and constitutional principles.”

“Its exposure as just another partisan institution, and one that cannot be responsive to the democratic process, has eroded the reverence for its wisdom,” Thomas said.

Supreme Court justices are nominated for life by the sitting president and Trump tapped three — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, all of whom joined the majority in the abortion, guns and religion cases.

The court is now at the forefront of the “culture war” dividing Americans and may have its sights set on other issues such as LGBTQ rights, contraception and same-sex marriage.

“I think we’re going to start to see states move very quickly to tee up cases for the Supreme Court to overturn these other rights,” Schwinn said.

“I don’t think the courts going to be holding punches anymore,” he said. “I think it’s going to be moving forward full throttle with a politically conservative agenda.”

Democratic President Joe Biden did not mince words in condemning the abortion ruling, calling it the “realization of an extreme ideology.”

It was also the target of a rare public criticism by Attorney General Merrick Garland, who is usually protective of judicial independence.

“The executive branch,” Thomas said, “is no longer going to politely defer to what many view as an illegitimate body.”

– ‘With growing concern…’ –

The abortion opinion was also the subject of an extraordinary breach of the court’s usual secrecy concerning its deliberations.

A draft of the majority opinion gutting Roe v. Wade was leaked in May, prompting an internal probe.

“It undermined trust among justices, clerks and employees,” Tobias said.

The court’s image has also suffered a blow from revelations about the role played by Ginni Thomas, the wife of conservative Justice Clarence Thomas, in trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election in favor of Trump.

The outnumbered liberal justices on the court — Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor — have made their frustrations increasingly clear.

“With growing concern for where this Court will lead us next, I respectfully dissent,” was Sotomayor’s pointed signoff of her dissenting opinion in the religion case.

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