Supreme Court tested with big cases revolving around LGBTQ rights, abortion
The Supreme Court has a powerfully controversial docket for its term beginning Monday that will test Chief Justice John Roberts Jr.'s efforts to portray the institution as above the noisy and partisan battles of the moment.
Two unknowns - whether the court will be drawn into legal controversies arising from the House Democrat's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, and the health of the court's oldest member, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg - add to the uncertainty.
Resolution of the most contentious cases could happen in June, in the heat of a presidential campaign in which the future of the court has emerged as a galvanizing issue for conservatives and liberals.
On the court's agenda:
- Whether federal law protects LGBTQ workers from discrimination or being fired.
- If the Trump administration's efforts to end the Obama-era program that protects immigrants brought to this country as children are lawful.
- The first Second Amendment claim involving gun ownership in more than a decade.
- Whether a state may withhold aid to private religious schools if it offers funding to secular ones.
- An abortion case that gives the court's new conservatives an opportunity to begin reconstructing its jurisprudence on what is perhaps the nation's most divisive subject.
On the horizon, there are cases that could re-define when the government must give greater deference to a person's religious beliefs, and perhaps even a third trip to the high court for the Affordable Care Act.
Last term, after the partisan bitterness that accompanied Justice Brett Kavanaugh's ascension to the court, the justices sought common ground on some issues and put off others - abortion restrictions, for instance, and Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
The delay is over, and the conservative majority - bolstered by Kavanaugh and Justice Neil Gorsuch, Trump's other appointee - is in position to be more assertive this term, according to those who watch the court.
"Probably not the revolution that some seek and others fear, but we will likely see a court moving further and faster in a rightward direction," said Irv Gornstein, executive director of the Georgetown Law Center's Supreme Court Institute. "The docket almost guarantees it."
Some conservatives see opportunity.
"I actually can't recall a time in the last 20 years that there were this many key issues that seemed ready for decision and primed for decision, and a court that seems open to them," said Mark Rienzi, president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Determining how far and how fast the court moves is Roberts, 64, entering his 15th year as chief justice and his second as the court's pivotal member.
Since the retirement of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy in 2018, Roberts is the median between four more conservative colleagues on one side and four liberals on the other.
He uses every public appearance to try to persuade that the court - with conservatives chosen by Republican presidents and liberals by Democratic ones - may be ideological but is not partisan.
"When you live in a politically polarized environment, people tend to see everything in those terms," Roberts said last month at an event at New York's Temple Emanu-El. "That's not how we at the court function and the results in our cases do not suggest otherwise."
Roberts has noted the range of majority lineups last term, even in cases that divided 5 to 4. The court's dominant conservatives made up the majority in only about one-third.