In a landmark term, the Supreme Court strengthens its own influence – Longmont Times-Call

A view of the U.S. Supreme Court on July 1, 2024 in Washington, DC. Donald Trump celebrated a “big victory” for democracy on Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that presidents have immunity when performing official acts – a decision that will delay his trial on charges of conspiring to overturn his 2020 election loss. (Drew Angerer/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

Michael Macagnone | CQ Roll Call (TNS)

WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday concluded a legislative session filled with landmark decisions on gun control, abortion and criminal charges against former presidents. But legal experts say the rulings that are likely to have the greatest impact are those in which the conservative majority asserted its influence over federal government actions and policies.

The justices extended their power to other branches of government and lower courts, even if they refused to go as far as some Republican-backed litigants and conservative lower courts, these experts say.

Aziz Huq, a law professor at the University of Chicago, said the Supreme Court most often decides cases in ways that give it greater influence over policy.

“What is special here is that the consequence, the aftermath of these decisions, is to dramatically increase the discretion of the courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, at the expense of the authority of other constitutional actors,” Huq said.

In four decisions, the justices gave judges more power to review administrative agency decisions, forced the filing of certain Securities and Exchange Commission lawsuits in federal court, allowed challenges to agency rules years after they were passed and intervened to stay a nationwide plan to reduce cross-state air pollution.

Clare Pastore, a law professor at USC’s Gould School of Law, said the changes resulting from these decisions will reverberate for years to come, leading to constant lawsuits over new and existing federal laws, with litigants seeking the friendliest judges.

“I think anyone who is paying attention can see that the court is in the process of rolling back, some would say dismantling, the administrative state as much as possible, and the rulings the court has just handed down take us an amazing step in that direction,” Pastore said.

These cases occurred during a legislative session that involved important decisions about the structure of federal agencies, abortion, Congress’s taxing power, gun control and former President Donald Trump.

In the cases where the court did not rule in favor of conservatives, it was in a way that prevented a major decision on abortion or other controversial issues in an election year, or an “accident” such as a ruling that prevented sweeping changes to Congress’s taxing power, Huq said.

These include decisions in which the justices upheld regulations on the abortifacient mifepristone and refused to rule on whether Idaho can ban abortions in medical emergency situations.

“The court has protected the Republican Party from having particularly controversial abortion decisions made before an election, but has the potential for the court to come back to it a year or so later if a Democratic president wins. So in these cases, it’s a bit like heads, I win, tails, you lose,” Huq said.

Administrative law

The court’s conservative majority, which ruled 6-3 in three of the four cases, portrayed its decisions as a necessary step to restore the judiciary’s responsibility to check the executive branch on behalf of Congress.

In a decision that overturned a 40-year-old precedent that required courts to defer to agency interpretations of ambiguous statutes, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that federal law prohibits judges from “disregarding” their responsibility to decide the meaning of the statutes.

“The courts must use their independent judgment in determining whether an agency acted within its legal authority,” Roberts wrote.

For Congress, the decision represents an uncertain and more difficult path to influencing the federal government’s implementation of laws on key issues such as the environment, health, immigration and other issues, lawmakers and legal experts said.

The court’s Democratic-appointed justices accused the conservative majority of a power struggle. Justice Elena Kagan, who dissented in the administrative restraint case, accused the majority of “judicial hubris.”

“In one fell swoop, the majority today has acquired exclusive power over all outstanding questions – no matter how expert or politically motivated – concerning the meaning of regulatory law,” Kagan said.

Overall, the decisions are likely to mean further court battles over the past and future of administrative regulations, said Kermit Roosevelt, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Carey Law School.

“These decisions serve to take power away from federal administrative agencies and give it to the judges,” Roosevelt said.

Kevin King, a partner at Covington & Burling, said these cases will be consolidated so judges can rule on more administrative law issues and many of these trials could be moved out of Washington, D.C.

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her dissenting opinion in a ruling that allowed challenges to agency rules years after they were passed that the court’s decisions taken together would unleash a “tsunami” of lawsuits challenging longstanding federal rules.

“Doctrines that were once considered settled are now unresolved, and claims that were unsubstantiated a year ago are suddenly up for debate,” Jackson said.

Nevertheless, the justices declined to go as far as the conservative U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on several key issues.

The justices overturned decisions by that court that would have invalidated a federal law that banned certain perpetrators of domestic violence from owning guns, restricted access to medication abortion, invalidated part of the 2017 tax law and declared the funding structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unconstitutional.

These were some of the court’s most controversial cases, and Roosevelt said they demonstrated the court’s intended direction.

“There are some things the Supreme Court is not willing to do, at least not yet and perhaps never,” Roosevelt said. “The question is how far they are willing to push it.”

Trump and the election

The Supreme Court’s most significant case this term was a major blow to the criminal case brought by Special Counsel John L. “Jack” Smith, who alleged that Trump attempted to overturn his defeat in the 2020 election.

Monday’s decision all but ensured that Trump would not face trial in the case before the 2024 election, as the matter was remanded to the court to decide whether the charges also cover Trump’s “official” actions as president.

Even in Trump, where the justices declared that presidents had broad immunity from federal court prosecution, Jackson pointed out in her dissent that the justices had assigned themselves the role of “gatekeepers” to decide whether a president could be impeached for official acts that fell outside the “core” of his presidential duties.

Huq said the decision had potentially caused long-term damage to the country and it was difficult to imagine how it could be reversed. He pointed out that the judges themselves in their decision had not considered the consequences of presidential immunity, such as the ability to order political assassinations.

“It’s really remarkable how the majority, an openly or obviously partisan majority, has essentially done nothing to respond to these concerns,” Huq said.

The justices have already begun taking up contentious cases for the next term, including disputes over access to gender reassignment care for minors, the Food and Drug Administration’s authority to regulate electronic cigarettes and access to porn websites in Texas.

In the coming months, the judges could address other contentious issues such as gun laws, the prospects of success of the state of Georgia’s lawsuit against Trump, and more.

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