What the Supreme Court’s monumental rulings tell us about the new conservative majority

The Supreme Court is off this Fourth of July after working overtime the last couple of weeks reshaping the country's legal landscape surrounding abortion, guns and religion. NewsHour's John Yang and The National Law Journal's Marcia Coyle unpack the historic term and what we’ve learned about the court.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Over the past few weeks, the U.S. Supreme Court has reshaped the country's legal landscape on abortion, guns, religion and more.

    Correspondent John Yang unpacks the historic term that's now come to a close and looks ahead to what could come next.

  • John Yang:

    The court rewrote law and redefined rights in ways that will reverberate through American society for many years.

    And with the cases they have already agreed to hear when the justices come back in the fall, there's likely to be more to come.

    Marcia Coyle covers the Supreme Court for "The National Law Journal."

    Marcia, at the beginning of this term that just ended, there was a lot of people wondering what this supermajority, if you will, of six conservative justices would do. And at the end of the term, I think we have got the answer.

    Marcia Coyle, "The National Law Journal": I think that this is a very conservative, aggressive new court. And we have seen it in a number of opinions this term.

    I think it was probably clearest in their decision to take on the abortion case and the gun case. In the gun situation, the court had been turning away numerous gun rights petitions, usually with a dissenting opinion written by Justice Thomas, saying that the court had made a constitutional orphan of the Second Amendment.

    But after Justice Barrett came on the bench, the court took the case. And with the abortion case, the court reached out to take this case, when they didn't have to. I think this court has a younger majority now. And, yes, these new justices, primarily the three appointed by former President Trump, know where they want to go.

    So I think it's an aggressive court. What more can I say?

  • John Yang:

    I want to ask you about the area of religion. I mean, it used to be that courts would try to navigate between the Establishment Clause on the one hand of the First Amendment saying that — worried about government speech seeming to endorse religion, and then the Free Expression Clause protecting people's right to free expression of religion and the First Amendment.

    Where is that balance now after this term?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I think the court, the Roberts court, has been on a consistent trend that elevates the Free Exercise Clause above the Establishment Clause.

    Justice Breyer used to talk about how it's true that those two clauses can sometimes clash. And what you would try to look for is, he called it the play within the joints to reach some sort of compromise. But I think that play within the joints is — has pretty much disappeared.

    In the Warren court, the '60s and 70s, religious — religion-related decisions were generally protective or in favor of religious minorities. But, since the '90s and the Rehnquist and Roberts court, and particularly the Roberts court, the religion decisions have been in favor of majority or mainstream religions.

  • John Yang:

    This term also saw something unprecedented, the leak of a draft opinion in the abortion case.

    Is there any sense of what that's done to the relationship among the justices in the way the justices work together?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, I think we have a little sense of it.

    Certainly, Justice Thomas made comments about how it has affected the justices' ability to trust each other. The court really believes in protecting the privacy of its decision-making process. And to have a major leak like that, an unprecedented leak, makes it seem just like any other political institution.

  • John Yang:

    In the closing weeks of the term, we got some big, big opinions about some contentious issues, and there was some sharp language in some of the opinions.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I did find somewhat striking that some of the dissenters in a sense were calling out the court, the majority, as aggressive.

    I think it was Justice Sotomayor who said in one of her dissents, she called them a new and restless court. And those sorts of comments are striking to me, because they strike — they go to the legitimacy of the court itself. The court never wants to be seen as changing law because someone new has come on the bench.

  • John Yang:

    There's much been said about the activities of the wife of one of the justices, Clarence Thomas' wife, Ginni.

    Do you think that has had an effect or an impact on the court's image?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I think it definitely has. The failure, alleged failure, of Justice Thomas to recuse from a case involving the January 6 investigating committee's desire to get White House documents — he was the only one who dissented from that case, and did not recuse.

    The fact that his wife was involved in attempts to change the results of the election, all of that, it just paints such a portrait for the court that it's hard to shake.

  • John Yang:

    Along those same lines, someone who's been very concerned about the reputation of the court is the chief justice, John Roberts.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I would imagine that this has been a very difficult term for him.

    Prior to the court getting a six-justice conservative majority, and it was only two terms ago, he was very much in control in terms of cases. He was in the middle and still able to cobble together majorities with the justices to his right and to his left.

    But now that there are six conservatives on the court, you only need five for a majority opinion. And this — these five don't need Roberts. And so he was in dissent a couple of times with the court's liberal wing. And then, also, he wrote some concurring opinions, as in the abortion case, in which he was, in a sense, almost scolding them about how judicial humility, modesty, judicial restraint should lead them to not overturn Roe.

    They did not accept his view. And I don't see that it's going to get any easier for him. His influence certainly has lessened because of the six-justice conservative majority.

  • John Yang:

    We began this discussion by talking about how aggressive this conservative majority is.

    Talk a little bit about the cases they have already accepted for argument when they return in the fall. Do you see signs of the aggressiveness there?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    I believe so.

    They have two affirmative action cases. Affirmative action in higher education has been rather settled for a while now. The court took them. And I assume it's because the court wants to say something about affirmative action in higher education.

    The court also has a couple of redistricting cases, challenges involving race — racial gerrymandering. They also have an election-related case app in North Carolina that could be very important in terms of the next presidential election.

    And, finally, they're revisiting an area that they did take up a while ago, but didn't really address the heart of the issue. Well, Colorado has a law in which a Web designer is refusing on the basis of a religion to work with a same-sex couple.

  • John Yang:

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal," thank you very much.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, John. Happy Fourth.

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