WASHINGTON – The U.S. High Court opens another term with Republicans on the cusp of understanding a fantasy 50 years really taking shape, a solid conservative majority that might roll back abortion rights, expand gun rights and shrink the power of government.
Eight justices are returning to work Monday at a generally surprising, politically laden crossroads in American history. They’re actually grieving the demise of their associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the head of the court’s liberal wing. They’re working amidst a pandemic that has constrained the court to definitely change the manner in which it conducts business. Furthermore, the presidential election is not exactly a month away.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee for Ginsburg’s seat, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, could be on the bench in time for one of the term’s biggest cases, post-Election Day arguments in the latest Republican bid to strike down the Affordable Care Act, which provides more than 20 million people with health insurance.
Barrett’s confirmation would cement a 6-3 conservative majority and diminish Chief Justice John Roberts’ ability to moderate the court’s decisions. That’s because conservatives would have five votes even in cases where Roberts might side with the remaining three liberal justices.
“I would guess that on the whole, we’re going to see a considerable and perhaps quite rapid shift to the right,” said Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley.
The term is so far short on high-profile cases, but that could change quickly because of the prospect of court involvement in lawsuits related to the election. Trump has said he wants Barrett in place soon so that she could be among nine justices, including his other appointees Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, who weigh in on any voting cases. Four years ago, Republicans were content to leave a Supreme Court seat open through the election, even if it meant having an eight-justice court decide any election challenges.
High-court involvement in the election could make this “the most tumultuous and divisive term since the Supreme Court decided Bush v. Gore 20 years ago and effectively determined who would become president of the United States,” said Irv Gornstein, a Georgetown University law professor.
Already this year, the justices have weighed in on election issues in Wisconsin, Alabama, Rhode Island, Florida and Texas. Among the issues: ballot witness requirements and allowing all voters to vote by mail. Pending are pleas from Republicans to reverse decisions extending the deadline for receiving and counting mail-in ballots in the battleground state of Pennsylvania and suspending a ballot witness requirement in South Carolina, where polls find a tight race between Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic challenger Jaime Harrison.
The court will begin the term the way it ended the last one, meeting by telephone because of the coronavirus pandemic and allowing the public to listen live to arguments. The biggest change is the absence of Ginsburg, who died of cancer last month at age 87 after 27 years on the bench. When the justices met remotely in May, she already was suffering from a recurrence of pancreatic cancer that was first diagnosed in 2009.
The only time her colleagues, masked and remaining at some distance from each other, gathered in person since March, when the court was closed to the public, was for Ginsburg’s memorial service in the court’s Great Hall.
Photo credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File
News source: The Associated Press