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Opinion | Supreme Court conservatives are restructuring the US government

The Supreme Court’s 2024 term may have been defined, at least for the general public, by multiple decisions involving Donald Trump. These cases are important, but the bigger picture is how the justices are restructuring the U.S. government.

The former president, to be sure, had little to complain about. First, the high court ruled, correctly, that he could appear on the ballot this fall. Then the justices went too far by declaring, at Trump’s request, that presidents are presumed to have immunity from criminal liability for “official acts.” The ruling unnecessarily delays Trump’s trial for the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot and encourages law-breaking in the Oval Office, assuring presidents that they can argue they are only doing their jobs when they do something wrong.

However, the court did much more during this period than recast checks on the president.

In some cases, the justices got it right. In the court’s decisions on restrictive social media laws in Texas and Florida, Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the majority, explained that these sites have their own First Amendment protections, dealing a blow to right-wing efforts to stymie these companies’ attempts to moderate content. In the so-called jawboning case, Murthy vs. MissouriThe court preserved the White House’s ability to communicate with the same set of companies about publications related to public health and elections.

The abortion news was encouraging in one case: All the judges agreed that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit was wrong to limit access to the pregnancy-terminating drug mifepristone. In a case involving Idaho’s attempts to block emergency abortions, they gave desperate women a reprieve (if only for now) and dismissed the case as unwise, leaving open the possibility of more proceedings.

But these bright spots stand in contrast to a series of decisions this term that represent an effort, largely shared by the court’s six conservatives, to disrupt the functioning of the U.S. government (or, as may increasingly happen, its inability to function). In addition to the Trump immunity case, a 6-3 decision last month overturned longstanding precedent Chevron vs. natural resources defense attorneyby freeing judges from the obligation to defer to executive agencies’ interpretations of ambiguous laws. The change weakens the executive branch and hampers the legislative branch by preventing lawmakers from drafting laws broadly with the expectation that executive branch experts will fill in the necessary details. Instead, judges will have more freedom to substitute their own judgment for agency judgment, even though they are unelected and not experts. The latter was made clear in the case of Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who confused nitrous oxide, laughing gas, with nitrogen oxide, an air pollutant, in a related recent ruling that also undermined agency authority.

The conservative majority also ruled, once again by 6 to 3, that South Carolina’s racially gerrymandered electoral districts constituted mere partisan gerrymandering of electoral districts, a practice that judges have sanctioned. This will encourage further racial gerrymandering of electoral districts by making accusations nearly impossible to prove.

These results may not seem to have much in common. The case of immunity grants the executive further room for maneuver, and cases involving the administrative state give that branch less. But they fit with a conservative vision of government in which the president’s persona is less constrained, even as conservative judges control a bureaucracy designed to bring stability and experience to the administration of policy set by Congress.

In this period, much of the conversation about the Supreme Court has focused not on jurisprudence but on the justices themselves: whether they are letting their political preferences, even personal ones, dictate their votes. The onus has been on them to prove their integrity to the public, after scandals involving everything from luxury vacations and suspiciously generous real estate deals to upside-down American flags. Their decisions have not always followed ideological lines, even on contentious issues. There have been pleasant surprises, notably from Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who has shown more independence than critics expected.

But this court also issued A total of 32 non-unanimous rulings in this periodThe 6-3 alignment, with all Republican appointees disagreeing with all Democratic appointees, was the most common, occurring 11 times and defining several of the most important decisions. Those decisions are altering not just a law here and a law there, but the modern design of government. Whatever the justices’ motivations, the court is hampering the ability of federal authorities to act in the public interest and protect vulnerable minorities, even when Congress asks them to do so.