A Consequential Supreme Court Term, Decades in the Making

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Security fencing surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2022. FRONTLINE documentaries offer context on the court's just-ended term, as well as recent decisions on abortion, guns, the environment and more.

Security fencing surrounds the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on June 29, 2022. FRONTLINE documentaries offer context on the court's just-ended term, as well as recent decisions on abortion, guns, the environment and more. (Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

July 6, 2022

In the span of a single term that came to a close June 30, the U.S. Supreme Court issued rulings with the power to dramatically reshape the American landscape on multiple fronts, including abortion, guns, separation of church and state, the environment and more.

Many of those decisions were cemented by a 6-3 conservative majority that was decades in the making, with Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) as a driving force. “For Mitch McConnell, the court is everything,” former U.S. senator and Senate Judiciary Committee member Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) told FRONTLINE in a 2020 interview.

FRONTLINE chronicled McConnell’s more-than-30-year effort to secure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court in the 2020 documentary Supreme Revenge: Battle for the Court, an updated version of 2019’s Supreme Revenge, from veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk and his team.

As the film explored, that effort culminated in McConnell immediately moving to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg when she died six weeks before the 2020 presidential election.

It was a very different approach than McConnell had taken four-and-a-half years prior. When Justice Antonin Scalia died more than eight months before the 2016 presidential election, McConnell prevented the Senate from considering Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee. McConnell’s strategy ultimately resulted in the confirmations of three conservative justices — Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett — during Donald Trump’s presidency.

“McConnell understands implication and consequence better than any United States senator,” Republican strategist Frank Luntz told FRONTLINE in 2019. “When you vote on legislation in the House and Senate, you’re playing for the next election. When you put in a judge, you’re playing for the next generation.”

In addition to examining the transformation of the Supreme Court, FRONTLINE has reported extensively on some of the major issues on which the court delivered rulings this term. Learn more about the court’s recent decisions, below — including an immigration decision in favor of the Biden administration — and watch a selection of documentaries offering context.

ABORTION

Overriding nearly five decades of legal precedent, the Supreme Court on June 24, 2022, overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in the United States. With its decision on the Mississippi-based Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the court granted individual states the full authority to regulate or prohibit abortion, with Justice Samuel Alito writing in the majority opinion that “the Constitution makes no reference to abortion, and no such right is implicitly protected by any constitutional provision.”

Since its first season in 1983, FRONTLINE has been covering the battle over abortion at both the national and state levels. Explore a collection of our documentaries on the subject, from Abortion Clinic (1983) to The Abortion Divide (2019), for context on how America reached this moment.

GUNS

Weeks after mass shootings in Buffalo, New York, and Uvalde, Texas, reignited calls for increased gun regulation, the Supreme Court on June 23 issued a 6-3 ruling in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen. The decision struck down a New York law that required people seeking licenses to carry handguns in public to have a “special need for self-protection.” In a majority opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, the court established for the first time in its history that people have a constitutional right “to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”

For years, FRONTLINE has been chronicling America’s dialogue on guns, including the role of the National Rifle Association, which applauded the Bruen ruling. Explore our related coverage, including Gunned Down (2015) and NRA Under Fire (2020).

ENVIRONMENTAL REGULATION

A June 30 ruling curtailing how the Environmental Protection Agency can regulate greenhouse gases also could impact the scope of other federal agencies’ regulatory authority. In his opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts cited a body of law called the “major questions” doctrine, which he said addresses “agencies asserting highly consequential power beyond what Congress could reasonably be understood to have granted.”

The court held 6-3 in West Virginia v. EPA that, in the 1970 Clean Air Act, Congress had not granted the EPA the authority to cap greenhouse gas emissions using a “generation shifting” approach outlined in 2015’s Obama-era Clean Power Plan. That approach would have effectively required coal-fired power plants to move toward generating electricity via cleaner or renewable energy sources, the court found, saying that “capping carbon dioxide emissions at a level that will force a nationwide transition away from the use of coal to generate electricity” would require Congressional authorization.

FRONTLINE has been covering climate change and federal regulation for years, including in the 2017 documentary War on the EPA, which examined the rise of the antiregulatory movement in America, and 2022’s The Power of Big Oil, which looked at the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate-change inaction across multiple presidential administrations. Explore these and other investigations.

CHURCH AND STATE

Two Supreme Court rulings this term narrowed the separation of church and state. In its June 21 decision in Carson v. Makin, the court held that the state of Maine couldn’t bar private religious schools from a program that offers students tuition assistance. And in Kennedy v. Bremerton School District on June 27, the court ruled that a public high school coach in Washington state who had prayed on the football field after games had the right to do so.

Part 5 of God in America, a six-part 2010 series from FRONTLINE and American Experience exploring the 400-year intersection of religion and public life in the United States, went inside the battle over school prayer, including two earlier Supreme Court cases, McCollum v. Board of Education (1948) and Engel v. Vitale (1962). Watch an excerpt below.

IMMIGRATION

On June 30, the court delivered a victory for the Biden administration. In Biden v. Texasa 5-4 decision, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor — the court held that the Biden administration had the authority to attempt to end the Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” program, launched in 2019.

For context on that program, formally known as the Migrant Protection Protocols, in which asylum seekers entering the U.S. via Mexico have been sent back across the border to await the results of court proceedings, watch an excerpt from the 2020 documentary Targeting El Paso.

Stream more than 300 FRONTLINE documentaries on issues facing the U.S. and the world in our online collection of films.


Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE

Twitter:

@ptaddonio

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