The October 2021 Supreme Court session was nothing short of unprecedented and historic. Americans got a look at the first term of the new 6-3 conservative majority consolidated during the Trump administration, with three of the six current conservative justices being Trump appointees.
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization caught most of the headlines this summer for overturning Roe v. Wade, but decisions regarding civil liberties, state surveillance, immigration, campaign financing and the power of federal agencies to combat climate change all culminated in one the most consequential SCOTUS sessions in U.S. history.
A Supreme Court Term starts on the first Monday in October, and the sessions continue until late June or early July of the next year, which is when most of the decisions are handed down and announced to the public.
Though in theory the Supreme Court is meant to operate as a politically neutral institution, many have criticized the apparent lack of neutrality expressed through its decisions. Examples include ruling in favor of corporate power, Big Pharma, stripping away Native people’s sovereignty, opposing organized labor and that time the SCOTUS officially stopped the recount in 2000, giving George W. Bush a narrow electoral victory in Florida and handed him the presidency.
Part of that divide can be seen in the different approaches taken by conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and the rest of his colleagues. Roberts is known for upholding precedents and going about his practice by the book; he was the lone conservtive on the bench to oppose the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Roberts’ concern was not that of protecting abortion rights, but about respecting the procedural steps in enacting abortion bans, concerned that the public would lose trust in the high court if they were to make such a sweeping change.
As seen in the previous session, Roberts’ conservative colleagues, namely Associate Justices Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas, are more direct in their approach to enacting their preferred policy even if it means overturning super precedents such as Roe.
With that primer, here’s a look at the biggest decisions from this Supreme Court session:
West Virginia v. EPA. 6-3. This case has drastic implications in regards to the federal government’s ability to combat climate change. It restricted government regulators from limiting companies burning fossil fuels, according to the New York Times.
In this ruling, the high court dealt a blow to a group of Southern Californian Muslims who say the FBI unlawfully spied on them due to their faith. In a unanimous decision, the justices overturned a lower court ruling in favor of Fazaga and his co-plaintiffs, claiming the ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s misapplied a federal law governing how surveillance-related evidence can be used in court, according to Deseret News.
Egbert v. Boule. 6-3. In one of the more impactful cases of this session, the ruling made it nearly impossible for Americans to sue federal law enforcement officers who violate their constitutional rights, which further complicates the process of holding U.S. officials responsible for misusing their authority, according to Reuters.
The court’s ruling grants absolute immunity to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents, which includes nearly 20,000 officers whose work can range from normal police work far away from the border to detaining migrant children and flying drones over protests.
Federal Election Commission v. Ted Cruz for Senate. 6-3. This case involved dismantling campaign finance laws which limited politicians from repaying loans to themselves above $250,000 from donations received after Election Day, according to Politico.
“All the money does is enrich the candidate personally at a time when he can return the favor — by a vote, a contract, an appointment,” Associate Justice Elena Kagan wrote in dissent. “It takes no political genius to see the heightened risk of corruption — the danger of ‘I’ll make you richer and you’ll make me richer’ arrangements between donors and officeholders.”
Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. 5-4. This ruling needs little explanation, with the case effectively allowing abortion bans all around the country. Another alarming piece of this decision is how Associate Justice Samuel Alito opens a door into questioning the legitimacy of other civil rights rulings, such as gay marriage.
“Alito’s draft argues that rights protected by the Constitution but not explicitly mentioned in it — so-called unenumerated rights — must be strongly rooted in U.S. history and tradition. That form of analysis seems at odds with several of the court’s recent decisions, including many of its rulings backing gay rights,” according to Politico.
Alito also cited Sir Matthew Hale, a 17th-century English jurist behind the notion that husbands can’t be prosecuted for raping their wives, and sentenced women to death as “witches,” according to Pro Publica.
Alito argues that the warnings, including the “right to remain silent,” are not constitutional rights in themselves that could result in a separate action against the police, i.e. suing them for not reading Miranda rights to detainees. For the time being, Miranda rights stay intact, but civil liberty lawyers and the dissenting justices have raised concerns over this ruling being an attack on the constitutional right.