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Here Are 5 Takeaways From The Supreme Court Term

The court managed to escape being dragged into the 2020 election chaos

Despite the Trump campaign's best efforts, the Supreme Court--aided by some 50 rulings from the lower courts — left it to the vote counters, state officials, and the vote certification by Congress to determine the outcome. Chief Justice John Roberts and most, if not all, other members of the court likely were relieved not to be involved in the political imbroglio.

Justice Barrett turned out to be a congenial colleague

The death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to succeed her before Ginsburg was even in the ground, and the GOP rush to confirm Barrett days before the election could have made for a fraught term, but on the surface, at least, it did not. The one exception to that came on the subject of religious rights during the pandemic lockdown. For months, the court voted 5 to 4 to uphold state and local rules limiting attendance at houses of worship, with the Chief Justice casting the fifth and decisive vote to uphold the limits in the name of state powers to regulate public health and safety. But Barrett in early February cast her vote the other way, flipping the outcome. Even that, however, proved a relative ripple at the court, in part because Barrett, turned out to be, according to several justices, a most congenial colleague.

The court's conservatives held their fire

Until almost the end of the term, the court's conservative supermajority held its fire, managing to achieve consensus with the liberals by deciding very little.

The court upheld Obamacare for a third time, but did it on technical grounds, ruling that the states challenging the law had not been harmed and thus had no legal standing to sue. It ruled unanimously that a high school cheerleader couldn't be punished by the school for cursing online about the team and the school, but the court did not ban schools from punishing all online student speech. And in a major religion case, the court ruled unanimously in favor of a Catholic group that refused, on religious grounds, to consider LGBTQ couples for foster care--a refusal that the city of Philadelphia maintained was a violation of the non-discrimination provision in its contract with the charity. But the decision was far narrower than expected.

But they showed their dominance on the final day

The court's conservative dominance, however, was on full display on the last day of the term when the conservative supermajority teamed up in two thunderbolt opinions.

In a major voting rights case, the court split along conservative/liberal lines to further gut the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act by making it much easier for states to enact restrictive voting laws and much harder for voting rights advocates--including the Biden Administration--to challenge laws that are increasingly being passed in Republican-dominated states.

On the same day, in an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, the court sided with rich donors in California who claimed they had a First Amendment right not to disclose to the state attorney general's office, their large contributions to nonprofits. The decision did more than invalidate a California law that the state enacted to monitor nonprofits for fraudulent behavior. It appeared to lay the groundwork for overturning election disclosure laws previously upheld by the Supreme Court. Should the court overturn those earlier rulings, it would mean Congress would be hamstrung in regulating campaign cash and the public would have no way to know who is financing political candidates.

In another major conservative ruling just days earlier, the court, once again ruled against labor unions, this time tightening the leash on union representatives and their ability to organize farmworkers in California and elsewhere. By a 6-3 vote along ideological lines, the court's conservatives struck down a law enacted nearly 50 years ago after a campaign by famed union organizer Cesar Chavez. It allowed union organizers to enter farms to speak to workers during nonworking hours. The court said the law amounted to a government taking of land in violation of the constitution. Critics said the decision could also call into question other laws, including those that allow health and safety inspectors onto private property.

Next term promises to make a lot more headlines

The court has already agreed to hear a major challenge to the Roe v. Wade abortion decision, and a major case testing restrictions on the right to carry a concealed gun outside the home. Also pending is a major challenge to affirmative action in higher education, a challenge that asks the court to overturn more than forty years of precedent in a case from Harvard University, until now held up as the model for affirmative action in the court's prior cases, and an institution where four of the justices were students, three taught, and one served as dean of the law school.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.