The U.S. Supreme Court wrapped up on Thursday one of its most consequential terms in recent history, having done away with nationwide abortion rights, eviscerated a form of gun control and tackled other controversial issues in a string of polarizing and ideologically split decisions.
As the highest court of the land, the Supreme Court routinely issues opinions of great weight that affect people’s daily lives.
But this term will be remembered as one of the most momentous, in no small measure because the high court for the first time in five decades declared that abortion is not a constitutionally protected right.
The June 24 abortion ruling was a bombshell, even though a draft of the majority opinion had been leaked weeks before, hailed by social conservatives as a victory and denounced by liberals as an assault on women’s reproductive rights.
It also demonstrated the enduring legacy of former President Donald Trump’s three Supreme Court nominations during his four years in office.
Trump came to office in 2017 with the court evenly split 4-4 between conservative and liberal justices, as the seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia had yet to be filled in the nine-member body.
By the end of Trump’s term four years later, conservatives held a commanding 6-3 majority.
Supreme Court justices like to say they’re above politics, pointing out that many, if not most, of their decisions are unanimous or near unanimous, backed by conservative and liberal justices alike. That used to be true but is no longer the case.
The court is issuing fewer unanimous decisions. The percentage of unanimous decisions has dropped from 49% in 2016 to 28% this most recent term, according to Adam Feldman, a Supreme Court scholar and creator of the Empirical SCOTUS blog. Meanwhile, the percentage of 6-3 ideological rulings edged higher as the court took on a slew of hot-button issues.
But Feldman said what is more important is how the conservative majority approaches contentious issues. With a six-vote, defection-proof supermajority, the conservative bloc “is bolder in the types of cases it takes because the justices know they have the numbers to win,” Feldman said. “Even if (Chief Justice) Roberts, (Justice Neil) Gorsuch, or (Justice Brett) Kavanaugh swing in a case, you would need at least two of them to go the other direction (for conservatives) to lose. That didn’t happen in any really significant cases this term.”
Meanwhile, the White House has been up in arms over some of the Supreme Court’s decisions issued in recent weeks.
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden called the Supreme Court’s abortion ruling “destabilizing” and “outrageous,” voicing support for ending the Senate’s filibuster rule to codify abortion rights in legislation.
On Thursday, the president said the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling that the Environmental Protection Agency lacked the authority to reduce gas emissions at power plants was “another devastating decision that aims to take our country backwards.”
Republicans have hailed and defended the court rulings. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who played an instrumental role in getting Trump’s Supreme Court nominees confirmed, criticized what he called Biden’s “attacks on the court as unmerited and dangerous.”
Here is a look at four notable decisions of the term:
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
This was by far the most significant decision of the term, if not of the past generation.
In a 6-3 ruling on June 24, the Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, saying the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee the right to have an abortion.
The ruling does away with nearly half a century of Supreme Court precedent. But conservative Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the long-standing principle of adherence to precedent is “not a straitjacket” and that Roe was “egregiously wrong and deeply damaging.”
Roberts, who voted with the majority, nonetheless said he would have favored a “narrower decision,” calling the majority opinion “a “serious jolt to the legal system.”
The court’s three dissenting liberal justices slammed the majority ruling as a “curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens.”
The decision leaves it to the states to set their own abortion laws. Twenty-six states are expected to restrict or ban abortion, according to a research group, forcing women to travel long distances to other states to undergo the procedure.
Legal experts are split over the implications of the ruling beyond abortion. While Alito wrote that the ruling was limited to abortion, progressives worry it could potentially affect other rights such as the right to same-sex marriage.
New York State Rifle and Pistol Association Inc. v. Buren
This was the Supreme Court’s biggest gun rights decision in more than a decade.
By a vote of 6-3 on June 23, the Supreme Court ruled that people have the right to carry weapons in public for self-defense.
At issue was a New York state law that requires people who want to carry a gun outside the home to show a “special need” for a license.
Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Clarence Thomas said that while states can regulate firearms, any such regulations must be consistent with the Constitution’s Second Amendment right to “keep and bear arms.”
The New York law prevents “law-abiding citizens with ordinary self-defense needs from exercising their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms in public for self-defense,” Thomas wrote.
The court’s three liberal justices dissented. Retiring Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that the court’s ruling “severely” impedes efforts by states to combat gun violence by limiting the use of firearms. (Breyer was replaced on the last day of the court by Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first female African American Supreme Court justice.)
It was the most significant gun rights decision since 2008 when the court struck down restrictions on gun registrations in the nation’s capital as well as a requirement that gun owners keep their firearms unloaded and disassembled at home.
West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency
This was one of the most consequential environmental cases to reach the Supreme Court in recent history.
The 6-3 ruling earlier this week dealt a blow to the Biden administration’s plan to fight climate change but has implications beyond environmental policy.
At issue was an Obama-era EPA plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants. The Trump administration repealed the scheme known as the Clean Power Plan, but a federal court last year restored the plan and sent it back to the EPA.
Roberts wrote that while reducing carbon emissions may be a “sensible solution” to climate change, “it is not plausible that Congress gave EPA the authority to adopt on its own such a regulatory scheme.”
The three liberal justices on the court dissented, complaining that the court stripped the EPA of the power “to respond to ‘the most pressing environmental challenge of our time.’”
Conservatives, however, see the ruling as a victory for separation of powers and curbing federal agencies’ power to make regulations not authorized by Congress.
“Congress has the authority to enact all sorts of legislation here in the climate change area,” said Edward Whelan, distinguished senior fellow and Antonin Scalia chair in constitutional studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank and advocacy group. “It shouldn’t let bureaucrats simply run amok without Congress taking responsibility for what’s happening.”
Environmentalists argue the ruling will hobble America’s ability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and harm the planet.
Biden v. Texas
In a rare victory for the Biden administration, a divided Supreme Court voted 5-4 on June 30 to allow the administration to end a Trump era immigration policy known as “Remain in Mexico.”
Implemented in 2019, the policy kept tens of thousands of asylum seekers in Mexico while they awaited an immigration court hearing in the U.S. The Biden administration repealed the policy in 2021 but faced legal challenges by several states.
The ruling was penned by Roberts, who was joined by conservative Kavanaugh and the court’s three liberal justices.
Under federal immigration law, the government “may” return asylum seekers who arrive at the U.S. border with Mexico back to Mexico.
That suggests that the government is not “required” to do so, Roberts wrote.
While immigration rights groups hailed the ruling as ending an injustice and in keeping with America’s history as a destination for immigrants, several Republican lawmakers criticized it as making it more likely that record-breaking migration to America’s southern border will accelerate further.
White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara contributed to this report.