On Friday, June 30, the nine learned women and men who preside over the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued their final decisions for the 2022-2023 term, sent their black robes to the dry cleaners, and high-tailed it out of the nation’s capital—some, perhaps on private jets, a topic I’ll address in a future column.
That means it is time for me to hand down my annual review of the justices’ work over the past 12 months, beginning with just how much work they actually did. Each year 5,000 to 7,000 cases are filed with the Court, the vast majority arrive as appeals from the federal Appellate and District Courts and the highest court in each state. In an average year SCOTUS accepts 75 to 80 cases or approximately one percent. This year the justices took up 60 and decided 58. Given the Court’s conservative majority, people on the left of the political spectrum probably wish the number had been six, those on the right would be thrilled if 600 or more had made it onto the docket.
Although a number of the 58 decisions deal with significant issues that will effect millions of Americans for decades to come, none will have the seismic impact of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization which reversed Roe v. Wade and gave each state the authority to regulate abortion within its borders. The aftershocks of that ruling are still being felt across the country, including here in Ohio, where a citizen initiated constitutional amendment guaranteeing reproductive freedom and abortion access may appear on the General Election ballot later this year.
With all that as preface, let’s take a look at some of the most important and closely watched cases decided during the term:
Biden v. Nebraska. Americans owe more than $1.78 trillion in student loan debt which is more than any type of debt other than mortgages. During the 2020 presidential election Joe Biden promised to cancel up to $10,000 of that debt per borrower. Wonder of wonders, after he won, he kept his promise and signed an executive order that wiped out $10,000 in student loans for borrowers with an annual income of less than $125,000.
Officials in Nebraska, Missouri, and three other states were not amused. They sued, arguing that the Biden Administration did not have the statutory authority to implement the loan forgiveness program. A 6-3 majority of the Court, led by Chief Justice Roberts agreed and basically said everyone who owes has to pay up. As I write this the President, who noted that the government has forgiven $757 billion in loans to businesses made under the Paycheck Protection Program, is searching for a new way to deal with the problem.
Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and v. University of North Carolina. In these two separate cases, Students for Fair Admissions argued that Harvard’s affirmative action admissions program violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by discriminating against Asian American applicants in favor of white applicants. The same plaintiffs argued that UNC’s program violates the Fourteenth Amendment by using race as a factor in admissions. The programs were upheld by the District and Appellate courts.
SCOTUS disagreed and in a 6-3 ruling overturned the lower courts and held that the use of race in college admissions is unconstitutional. In response, a number of colleges and universities are exploring utilizing class rather than race as a factor in making higher education more accessible to a wider segment of Americans.
Moore v. Harper and Allen v. Milligan These two cases which involve legislative redistricting and gerrymandering produced decisions that were surprising in light of the fact that the Court has in recent years handed down a number of decisions that eroded the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and approved partisan gerrymandering.
In Moore the Court rejected North Carolina lawmakers’ claim that the “independent state legislature” theory gave them the sole authority to draw whatever districts they wanted in any way they pleased. In a 6-3 opinion written by the Chief, the Court held that districts drawn by state authorities were subject to review by the federal courts. The ruling has special significance for Ohio that I will address next week.
In Allen, a 5-4 majority, again led by CJ Roberts, found that Alabama officials had violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by packing Black voters into a single district in a way that made it nearly impossible for Black voters to elect the candidates of their choice.
The two rulings provide a glimmer of hope that at some point before the end of the 21st Century our gerrymandering will be outlawed, and our electoral process will feature a modicum of fairness. OK, I’m not holding my breath, but I can dream can’t I?