Analysis-US Supreme Court divisions expected to be exposed as final rulings loom


By John Kruzel and Andrew Chung

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court, with its 6-3 conservative majority, managed to bridge its ideological divide in major rulings this month involving constitutional gun rights and access to the abortion pill, but that could change as the court heads into what may be the final week of its term.

Decisions are due in major cases involving Donald Trump‘s claim of presidential immunity from prosecution, an Idaho abortion ban that makes no exception to protect the health of pregnant women, and a doctrine called “Chevron deference” that long has bolstered federal regulations against legal challenges. Those cases are expected to once again expose the fault lines between the court’s conservative and liberal justices.

“So far, the term has been less ideologically defined than the last two,” said Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California Berkeley Law School. “But I really think it is (this) week’s decisions that will determine how we think of the term.”

Two years ago, the court’s conservatives powered rulings rolling back abortion rights and widening gun rights. Last year, they rejected race-conscious admissions policies long used by colleges and universities to increase enrollment of Black and Hispanic students.

Some justices have come under fresh scrutiny for their actions away from the bench, including reports that flags associated with Trump’s attempts to overturn his 2020 election loss flew outside Justice Samuel Alito’s homes in Virginia and New Jersey, and fresh revelations about Justice Clarence Thomas accepting undisclosed travel from a wealthy benefactor.

The American public has come to view the court through a partisan lens, with 69% of Republicans, but just 27% of Democrats, viewing it favorably, according to a May Reuters/Ipsos poll.

The justices are expected to complete their term either this week or next, with rulings in 14 argued cases – including some of the most important ones – still outstanding.

Based on the proportion of cases decided by this point in a term that started in October, the court is having its second-slowest term since 1946, according to Adam Feldman, a legal scholar who tracks court data on his Empirical SCOTUS blog. In that span, only the 2019-2020 term that ended during an intense period of the COVID pandemic was slower.

Two cases of keen interest to Trump, the Republican candidate challenging Democratic President Joe Biden in the Nov. 5 U.S. election, are awaiting resolution. One is his bid to avoid federal prosecution on charges relating to the former president’s efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss to Biden. The other involves whether to raise the legal bar for prosecutors pursuing obstruction charges against Trump supporters accused in the Jan. 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol attack.

Trump himself was hit with two obstruction-related charges in a four-count criminal indictment obtained in August 2023 by Special Counsel Jack Smith. The Supreme Court’s decision to hear arguments over presidential immunity and to then wait until the end of its term to issue a ruling have reduced the chances of a jury deciding that criminal case before the Nov. 5 election – if the justices even allow it to proceed.

AGENCY POWERS

The court last month ruled 7-2 – with four conservative justices joined by all three liberals – to uphold the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s funding mechanism, a decision in a case that had posed an existential threat to that agency. But U.S. regulatory agencies could still suffer major blows in cases still be to decided – reflecting a long-running conservative effort to weaken what they call the “administrative state.”

One case takes aim at the legality of proceedings conducted by Securities and Exchange Commission in-house judges. Another targets “Chevron deference,” a key principle of administrative law for decades. Dating to a 1984 Supreme Court precedent involving the oil company Chevron, it calls on judges to defer to reasonable interpretations by federal agencies of laws deemed to be ambiguous.

Also to be decided are three cases involving the power of social media companies to curb content on their platforms that they deem objectionable.

During its current term, the Supreme Court has reined in several decisions by the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative federal appellate courts.

The justices have overturned or thrown out five of the seven 5th Circuit rulings they have addressed so far. These included the court’s unanimous June 13 ruling preserving broad access to the abortion pill mifepristone, and an 8-1 ruling last Friday – with five conservative justices joined by the three liberals – that upheld a federal law that makes it a crime for people under domestic violence restraining orders to have guns.

The court is next scheduled to issue rulings on Wednesday.

“As always, most of the blockbuster cases will come down in the last week,” Chemerinsky said.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham and Scott Malone)



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