Supreme Court Finale: Unexpected Reversals and Alliances Precede End of Term

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to issue its most divisive rulings of the term after a streak of unconventional alliances between the justices — in addition to numerous reversals against one of the conservative federal appellate courts in the U.S. 

The justices have returned decisions in 47 of the 65 cases they heard during the term — meaning they have roughly finished 72% of the docket. 

Despite the public political narrative of a court sharply divided by its conservative majority, the Washington Examiner reports that only 13 cases have been decided by a 6-3 vote so far, with only five cases split along ideological lines.

On Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, more rulings are expected to be released in cases that range from a high-profile ruling on the 1984 precedent known as the Chevron doctrine, which gives broad deference to agencies in legal disputes over regulations, to a landmark decision involving former President Donald Trump’s claims of immunity from prosecution.

“The problem is that a lot of what we’re really going to learn and be talking about this term has not been released yet,” said the founder of the Empirical SCOTUS website, Adam Feldman, which tracks statistics and votes by the High Court from term to term.

Last term, the number of 6-3 decisions made was 11, although only five were decided along ideological lines. In the 2021-22 summer term, when approval of the Supreme Court dropped to historic lows in the wake of the Court’s decision to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the Court had a term that was much more polarizing, with 14 of the 18 decisions that split 6-3 being ideological votes. There are six justices appointed by GOP presidents and three appointed by Democrat presidents.

According to Feldman, the justices will likely issue more rulings that surpass last year’s mark later in the week, although it remains to be seen if they pass the 14 ideological splits from 2021.

Feldman said the justices will likely issue additional rulings later this week that will pass last year’s marker, although it remains to be seen if the justices surpass the 14 ideological splits from 2021.

Amid the current trend of more 6-3 unconventional decisions, public opinion of the Supreme Court recently hovered just below 40%, close to the lowest approval rating of the Court since weeks after the reversal of Roe with the Dobbs vs. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, which occurred two years ago this week.

Jonathan Entin, a Case Western law professor, said the High Court’s approval rating “is way down. Even 47% is way down compared to where the Court used to be, 25-30-50 years ago.”

“Part of that reflects the greater polarization in the country, the greater polarization between the parties, and the kind of trench warfare that goes on every time there’s a Supreme Court vacancy, and increasingly with lower court vacancies,” added Entin.

Feldman agreed that the reason the public is dissatisfied with the High Court could be tied to the election-year contest between President Joe Biden, who nominated Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in 2022, and former President Donald Trump, who nominated Amy Coney Barrett, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Kavanaugh during his term.

“You have this frustration from the Left, especially on the potential delay tactic that is going on with the Supreme Court not giving a decision in the [Trump case],” said Feldman, citing poll numbers from Gallup that broke down the Right’s consistent support of the High Court and “more pull away from the Left and the middle,” regarding approval of the Supreme Court.

Democrats have recently reignited their attacks on the Supreme Court and its more conservative members. Earlier this month, Joe Biden called the potential for Donald Trump to nominate more justices to the bench “one of the scariest parts” of a possible second Trump term. On Monday, Democrat Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi told CNN she believed the Court had gone “rogue.”

“I think they’ve gone rogue. It’s most unfortunate…what happened to the chief justice? Did he go weak, or did he go rogue?” Pelosi said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

While the country might be closely divided, the unconventional alliances the justices have formed this term so far and their unanimity challenge the claim by far-left critics that the GOP-appointed majority is voting in as a bloc on key disagreements.

On 24 of the 47 decisions it has handed down so far, the Supreme Court has ruled unanimously — although it is true the most agreeable decisions are typically released first. However, in a 6-3 ruling last week in Diaz vs. United States, Jackson found herself aligned with the GOP-appointed justices who sided with prosecutors against a woman who claimed to be a “blind” drug mule. In contrast, in dissent, Gorsuch sided with Democratic-appointed Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

In a different 6-3 decision surrounding the Armed Career Criminal Act, Justice Gorsuch wrote a majority opinion with which Sotomayor and Kagan agreed. At the same time, Jackson chose to join Kavanaugh’s written dissent along with Justice Samuel Alito.

SCOTUS has reversed numerous appeals from the Louisiana-based U.S. Court of Appeals

An additional remarkable trend popping up during this term involves the ten appeals from the Louisiana-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit — the most conservative federal appellate Court in the nation, which have ultimately resulted in numerous reversals. On the 5th Circuit, of the 17 active judges, only five were appointed by Democratic presidents.

The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 last month — with four GOP-appointed justices joining all three Democratic-appointed jurists — to uphold the funding mechanism of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. That case originated from a 5th Circuit ruling that scrutinized the CFPB’s direct funding from the Federal Reserve, which marked the first of three significant rebukes against the circuit court.

Again, the Supreme Court dealt a blow to the findings of the 5th Circuit in a case surrounding the Food and Drug Administration’s mid-2010s rule that mifepristone, a common abortion drug, more accessible via online and mail orders. In a 9-0 decision, the justices reversed the judgment of the 5th Circuit and found the anti-abortion group that challenged the FDA’s rules lacked standing to bring the case forward.

Last Friday, the Supreme Court delivered an additional reversal to the 5th Circuit’s findings in United States vs. Rahimi, ruling 8-1 to undo the decision of the appeals court to strike a federal statute that blocked those who are subject to domestic violence restraining orders from possessing a firearm.

The far-left-leaning Center for American Progress published a May 15 report claiming the 5th Circuit was inviting the “right-wing extremists” on the High Court to “take sweeping action to roll back decades of progress.” However, the Supreme Court’s reversals at the 5th Circuit haven’t yet fulfilled the left’s narrative.

Despite several losses at the Louisiana appellate Court, the justices did uphold the decisions of the 5th Circuit in one case involving the reversal of a federal ban on bump stock gun attachments, and an additional ruling sided with the federal government regarding notices of removal for illegal migrants. 

The Supreme Court still has three 5th Circuit appeals to determine, including a dispute surrounding Florida and Texas social media laws, a constitutional fight against the Securities and Exchange Commission’s use of in-house administrative law judges, and a lawsuit over alleged efforts by the Biden administration to censor speech online.

The full scope of the justices’ rulings, along with their voting patterns, will likely be revealed by the end of the week, when the Supreme Court is set to return decisions on a plethora of divisive matters, including a ruling on homeless encampment bans, challenges to federal guidance over emergency room abortions, and major free speech and environmental decisions.