by Mario Boozang
The past few weeks have shown the devastating impact and power of the Supreme Court. Recent decisions have overruled women’s rights to bodily autonomy, significantly reduced the EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions, allowed religious schools to receive state funding, expanded gun rights, and much more. This year was the first full term with all three of Donald Trump’s Supreme Court appointees, and it is clear that this has led to extremely divisive issues almost always being split along partisan lines. According to professors Lee Epstein of Washington University in St. Louis and Keven Quinn of the University of Michigan, the Supreme Court released more conservative decisions this term than any other since 1931. Due to the unfortunate fact that Supreme Court justices are appointed for life, future terms will likely result in even more conservative decisions. Before we begin to look toward future decisions of the court, it is important to understand the recent rulings and their consequences.
The most destructive of the rulings in the past month was clearly the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which will now make it impossible for women in many states to receive an abortion. It has been determined that 26 states are certain or likely to ban abortion, 13 of which have trigger laws, meaning the banning of abortion went into effect within days or even hours after the decision was released. Many of the so-called trigger law states, such as Kentucky, Louisiana, South Dakota, Tennesse, Texas, and more do not provide any exceptions for victims of rape or incest. They will only allow an abortion if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger. The punishment for providing or attempting to provide abortion services ranges from a 4 Class D felony in Kentucky to up to 10 years in prison and fined between $10,000 and $100,000 in Louisiana. However, this is not only a danger for women living in red states. Many women seeking an abortion will travel across state lines to blue states, which will put a strain on healthcare services and make it more difficult for everyone to get an abortion. Many Democrat states will have to provide much more financial assistance to abortion clinics within their states, which could also be directed towards funding travel for those who can’t afford to go to other states. Justice Clarence Thomas, by far the most conservative justice on the court, has implied that he intends to reverse other landmark decisions, such as the right to contraception, same-sex consensual relations, and same-sex marriage.
The court also dealt a major blow to the Environmental Protection Agency, ruling that they can no longer regulate carbon emissions from power plants to the same extent they were able to previously. In a 6-to-3 ruling, the conservative majority’s reasoning for this decision relies on the major questions doctrine, a theory that states if an agency controls an issue of national significance, Congress must provide clear authorization. According to Chief Justice Roberts, the Clean Air Act was too ambiguous and gave the EPA too much power. This decision will set back any climate goals the Biden administration planned to accomplish and serves to further empower the fossil fuels industry. This also creates a dangerous precedent for any future case involving agencies. The interpretation of the major questions doctrine is very subjective and can be used on practically anything the conservative majority wants to strike down. The reason Congress creates agencies is so that they can hyperfocus on specific issues while Congress can spend their time in other ways. However, this implies that Congress will need to provide extreme specificity when delegating power to any agency, which is much harder to accomplish and will likely severely weaken the power of the executive branch.
Following the mass shootings of Uvalde, Buffalo, Chicago, and many more, the Supreme Court responded with a ruling that helped to expand gun rights. The decision struck down a New York law that greatly restricted being able to carry a gun in public spaces. Striking down this law will force California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, home to a quarter of all Americans, to rewrite their laws. With the staggering number of mass shootings every year, it is jarring to see a ruling that makes it even easier for citizens to be able to carry a gun in public. This comes in stark contrast to the bipartisan gun violence bill passed in Congress later that day, the first action toward gun safety in decades. The bill, once passed into law, will make it harder for young people to purchase weapons, deny guns from domestic abusers, and make it easier for police to take away guns from people judged to be dangerous. Arguably the most important part of the bill allocates the majority of its funds toward mental health programs, which will help to solve the root cause of many mass shootings. Unfortunately, this is the first action toward gun safety in decades, and this is a small first step. In order for any progress to be made against gun violence, there needs to be more compromise and stricter regulations across the board. As Justice Breyer writes, “Gun violence has now surpassed motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of death among children and adolescents.”
All three Supreme Court rulings I laid out were decided along partisan lines (6-to-3). This highlights the impact division and partisanship have had on how the court makes its decisions. Due to lifelong tenures, this court will be around for years, even decades to come. Rather than allow the increasingly conservative and authoritarian rulings to continue to strip away the rights of millions of Americans, it is time for the Biden administration to reform the court. There are two popular ideas on how to accomplish this. One way is to “pack” the court, which means adding more progressive justices to balance out the conservative majority. This is problematic because, according to the Constitution, Congress has the power to determine how many justices there are. This means that whenever party control of Congress changes, the number of justices will change and the court will become very unstable. Another option is to add term limits. This could be staggered in a way that every President will be able to appoint a Supreme Court justice. A major drawback of the current system is that it completely depends on when a justice chooses to retire or when they die. This randomness is how Obama appointed two justices in eight years while Trump appointed three justices in only four years. But term limits would require a Constitutional amendment. Without any sort of reform, this court will continue to follow through with extremely partisan rulings and there is nothing the American people can do about it. It is now up to Congress and the Biden administration to fix the Supreme Court before the next term in October.
Mario Boozang is a student at the University of Connecticut and a MAPA intern.