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Courting controversy

Courting controversy

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In 2022 the United States Supreme Court has reshaped America through a series of controversial decisions on the climate; religious rights; gun laws and – most momentous of all – abortion.

Until the end of the year, the Sensemaker podcast is looking back at the biggest stories of the past 12 months. 

Today: how the United States Supreme Court reshaped America in 2022.

“The court rewrote law and redefined rights in ways that will reverberate through American society for many years.”

PBS

“The court’s conservative majority ruled today that a public high school football coach in Washington state has the right to pray on the 50-yard line after a game.”

ABC news 

“The justices handing down a major decision on guns in America, striking down New York’s licensing regime when it comes to carrying a gun outside the home.”

ABC news 

“The Supreme Court capped off a week of landmark decisions yesterday by limiting the EPAs power to curb carbon dioxide emissions.”

MSNBC

This year, the United States Supreme Court made a series of controversial decisions in important cases about the climate; religious rights; gun laws and – most momentous of all – abortion…

“The court has ruled that states can decide whether abortion should be legal or illegal. That means according to this decision, the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion. Roe vs Wade and Casey have been overruled”

CBS

Pro-lifers were ecstatic: ending Roe was their biggest, shiniest goal, and they had done it. Pro-choice advocates were devastated. 

For many Americans, it felt like the court had chosen to wind back the clock on women’s rights and gender equality. 

“I’m really afraid for women, women’s rights. I’m really sad for my country.” 

CBC News

All six of the judges who overturned Roe were conservatives, nominated by Republican presidents. 

Three of them were handpicked by Donald Trump. 

One of them, Amy Coney Barrett, was (controversially) sworn in a week before Trump lost the presidential election in 2020. 

It’s no surprise that many people feel the court – like so many American institutions – has become too partisan. 

And in 2022, that division seemed to reach new heights…

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In case after case this year, the court’s opinion was split between its six conservatives – chosen by Republicans – and its three liberals – chosen by Democrats. 

The guns case was decided six to three. 

The environment case? Six to three. 

The prayer case? You guessed it… six to three. 

And the abortion case was, of course, six to three. 

The Supreme court is meant to be objective – its members are supposed to interpret the law, free from political bias.

And its judges insist that’s exactly what happens. 

They say politics doesn’t influence the court’s decisions: 

 “I, you know, even serving on the court have opinions about the results of decisions but justices aren’t deciding cases – no judge is deciding a case – in order to impose a policy result. They’re trying to make their best effort to determine what the law requires, what the constitution requires, what statutes require.” 

Amy Coney Barrett, Reagan Library

That’s Amy Coney Barrett, one of the judges appointed by the Republicans.

She might claim that her choices aren’t shaded by politics, but in each of the most polarising cases facing the court this year, she and her fellow conservatives have toed the party line…

So the court certainly looks pretty politicised.  

***

The perception of bias isn’t helped by the fact that the court’s conservative wing seems increasingly out of step with what many Americans believe in.  

65 per cent of Americans think the government should be doing more on climate change, but the Supreme Court’s EPA verdict will make it harder to regulate emissions.

79 per cent of people think you should have to apply for a permit to carry a concealed handgun, and yet the Supreme Court said that people have a right to carry a gun under the United States constitution. 

And 61 per cent of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases, but the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe triggered laws banning abortion in states across the US.  

Because it is so polarised, the court is losing people’s trust: 

“According to the latest Gallup poll just one in four Americans say they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the nation’s highest bench. That’s the lowest the number has been in the nearly 50-year history of the survey.”

MSNBC

Carolyn Shapiro, co-director of the Institute on the Supreme Court of the United States, said that dissatisfaction with the court has shown up in polling data – and in November’s midterm elections: 

“The polling data suggests that the Dobbs decision was very motivating for many voters and particularly young voters and women.”

Carolyn Shapiro, interview with Tortoise

Americans aren’t happy with the court’s decision on abortion, and millions turned out in the midterms because they reject the reversal of Roe. 

The court’s controversial, polarizing decisions have eroded faith in the institution. 

Will things change course in 2023?

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The nomination of a new liberal judge to the bench gave fresh hope for the future of the court. In October Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. 

For her own part, she hopes more diversity in the makeup of the court might inspire greater trust in the institution:

“Having meaningful numbers of women and people of color I think matters. I also think that it supports public confidence in the judiciary when you have different people because we have such a diverse society.” 

Ketanji Brown Jackson

Ketanji Brown Jackson’s appointment is historic, but what it didn’t change was the balance of the Supreme Court. The conservative supermajority still stands. 

And the cases the court will decide next year – on affirmative action, gerrymandering and voting rights – are no less contentious, and no less significant, than last time.

This episode was written and mixed by Ella Hill.