Five cases to watch as a conservative Supreme Court begins its new term

(The Hill) — When the Supreme Court starts its new term Monday, the six Republican-appointed justices are expected to resume the project they began last term of remaking U.S. constitutional law in a conservative image.

With many Americans are still reckoning with a term that eliminated the federal abortion right in the Dobbs decision, expanded Second Amendment and religious rights and shrank the U.S. government’s power to curb climate change, the 6-3 conservative majority court has chosen a set of highly combustible cases that court watchers believe are likely to break along ideological lines.

“In most of the high-profile cases besides Dobbs, we saw 6-3 decisions, with Republican-appointed justices on one side and Democratic-appointed justices on the other,” Irv Gornstein, executive director of Georgetown Law’s Supreme Court Institute, said recently of the court’s prior term.

“There’s no reason to think this coming term, or any term in the foreseeable future, will be any different,” he said. “On things that matter most, get ready for a lot of 6-3s.”

When conservative dominance of the high court burst into full view last term — the culmination of a decades-long and deep-pocketed effort by the conservative legal movement — it left supporters ecstatic.

Opponents of the various decisions had a much different opinion, and the dissonance has left the Supreme Court notching historic lows in recent polling on public approval and confidence.

Debate over how the court’s rightward shift is affecting its institutional health and standing with Americans has even led to some justices trading barely veiled barbs in public commentary.

As the court embarks upon another contentious term, here are five cases to watch.


The Supreme Court’s first case of the new term involves a major environmental dispute over the federal government’s power to protect the nation’s waterways under the Clean Water Act.

The central question is whether the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory reach extends to wetlands that are not connected to federal waters above ground — but are capable of reaching these waters below the surface.

If the justices give a narrow reading to the government’s authority, it could pave the way for greater land development and loosen requirements on businesses that discharge pollutants. Conservation groups warn that such an outcome risks disrupting the environment and animal habitats.

Arguments in Sackett v. EPA will be heard on Oct. 3.

Affirmative action

A pair of cases will challenge the use of race-conscious admissions in higher education. Lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina ask the justices to end affirmative action in college admissions decisions by overruling a longstanding precedent that permits schools to consider race as a factor when assembling a student body.

The challengers, a group of Asian American students, claim in the Harvard case that the school violated civil rights protections by engaging in racial balancing and by refusing to administer an available race-neutral approach to admissions.

The cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, will be argued before the justices on Oct. 31.

Election law

The justices will hear an election law case that could hand state legislatures sweeping new powers over how voting maps are drawn and federal elections conducted.

GOP lawmakers in North Carolina are appealing a ruling by their state’s top court which found that a new Republican-drawn voting map amounted to an illegal partisan gerrymander. The Republican challengers have urged the justices to rule in their favor by finding that the Constitution’s Elections Clause hands state legislatures near total control over how federal elections are carried out in their state, a theory known as the “independent state legislature doctrine.”

If the Supreme Court sides with the Republican lawmakers, it could effectively shield legislatures from having their electoral maneuvering reviewed in state courts, removing a key judicial check on lawmakers’ power.

Arguments in Moore v. Harper have not been scheduled yet.

Voting rights

The justices will weigh a voting rights case that tests the legal limits on alleged racial gerrymandering, which involves the drawing of voting maps in a manner that dilutes the electoral power of racial minorities. 

The case arose after Alabama Republicans asked the justices to block a lower court ruling which found Alabama’s new voting districts likely run afoul of the Voting Rights Act.

The central question is whether the mismatch between Alabama’s Black population (27 percent) and its disproportionate representation in Congress (one of seven U.S House seats, or 14 percent) violates the law. Arguments in Merrill v. Milligan will be heard on Oct. 4.

LGBTQ discrimination

The Supreme Court will hear a First Amendment dispute that deals with a Colorado website designer’s refusal to make her services available for same-sex weddings.

The case arose when web designer Lorie Smith’s plan to exclude gay weddings, due to her religious belief, ran headlong into a Colorado nondiscrimination law. That law makes it illegal for businesses that serve the public to turn away customers based on sexual orientation or other aspects of identity.

The case will test whether the Colorado law infringes on free-speech protections by compelling people like Smith to engage in speech they oppose.

Argument in the case, 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, has not been scheduled yet.