Issues to watch as new Supreme Court term unfolds


The Supreme Court term that opens Monday may reveal just how far the 6-3 conservative court is willing to go to reshape American life.

The upcoming term could see abortion access dramatically narrowed and the right to carry a gun outside the home enshrined as the law of the land. The justices in coming months will also address clashes with major implications for U.S. national security and the free exercise of religion.

The court term is already shaping up to be a blockbuster, even as the justices continue to add new cases to their docket. Here are five issues to watch as the term unfolds. 

Abortion access

The justices on Dec. 1 will hear arguments over Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban, a case that poses a direct challenge to the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that first recognized a right to abortion.

In the nearly five decades since the landmark Roe decision, opponents have tried to narrow legal protections for abortion. But it was not until the court’s dramatic shift to the right under President Trump that conservatives felt that bold action by the court was within reach.

Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban has been overshadowed by legal challenges to Texas’ even more restrictive prohibition on most abortions. This summer the justices voted 5-4 to allow the Texas measure to take effect, allowing the state to outlaw abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected, around six weeks of pregnancy.

A decision in the Mississippi case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, is expected by late June, just months before the 2022 midterm elections.

Gun control and Second Amendment

The justices on Nov. 3 will hear arguments over a New York gun control measure that challengers say infringes on their Second Amendment right to bear arms outside the home.

The New York law at issue gives discretion to licensing officials over whether to approve concealed carry permits. The lawsuit arose after an official denied two New York residents’ request for unrestricted carry licenses, saying the applicants had not demonstrated a “proper cause” to carry handguns at all times. 

The Biden administration has thrown its weight behind New York and urged the court to defer to the longstanding practice of allowing legislatures to place reasonable limits on firearms to protect public safety.

The case has drawn considerable outside interest, both from firearms advocates who want to see the justices use the case to expand gun rights, to states and gun control groups who warn that public safety could be imperiled if regulatory authority is rolled back.

Religious liberty  

The justices on Dec. 8 will hear a clash over a Maine education policy that bars religious K-12 schools from receiving state-funded tuition aid.

Maine law gives school-age children the right to access free public education. But because many rural areas lack a public secondary school, students have the option to attend nearby qualifying private schools at taxpayers’ expense, so long as those schools are not religious.

This exclusion prompted a legal challenge from three sets of Maine parents, who argue that barring their preferred schools from receiving state tuition aid because of a religious affiliation violates the U.S. Constitution.

The justices in coming months are slated to hear another religious liberty case, this time involving a death row inmate. John Ramirez, who was sentenced to death for the brutal slaying of a man during a 2004 robbery spree, claims that Texas is poised to execute him in a manner that would violate his religious rights.  

The dispute concerns Texas’ denial of Ramirez’s request that his spiritual advisor be allowed to lay hands on him and audibly pray inside the death chamber while Ramirez is executed. 

The Maine parents and death row inmate may find a sympathetic audience in a conservative majority court that has been generally favorable in responding to religious liberty claims.

National security and post-9/11 response

The justices will hear two clashes over the U.S. government’s power to keep under wraps information related to controversial post-9/11 measures. Both of the upcoming cases implicate the state secrets privilege, a legal doctrine that permits the executive branch to conceal sensitive information that would endanger national security if publicly disclosed. 

One case, FBI v. Fazaga, arose after a group of Muslim men in California filed a lawsuit alleging the FBI illegally surveilled them in the mid-2000s solely on the basis of their religion. That dispute concerns whether the state secrets privilege should effectively scuttle their litigation. 

A second case, U.S. v. Zubaydah, deals with whether the privilege should bar a Guantanamo Bay detainee and CIA torture victim from accessing information related to alleged clandestine CIA activities.

The Biden administration in both cases is arguing for a broad interpretation of the privilege.

Boston Marathon bomber and capital punishment

The Biden administration on Oct. 13 will urge the justices to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

The government’s legal position, an apparent break with then-candidate Biden’s opposition to capital punishment, is that a lower appeals court erred when it vacated Tsarnaev’s death sentence.

At issue is whether the trial court did an adequate job assessing the jury’s potential for bias and the extent to which Tsarnaev was acting under the influence of his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev. Tamerlan, the other perpetrator of the marathon bombing, was subsequently killed during an ensuing manhunt.

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