In decisions handed down in recent weeks, the conservative Supreme Court transformed the legal landscape around an assortment of hot-button issues, including abortion, gun rights, immigration and religious liberty.
The cascade of sweeping rulings was the culmination of a generational effort to transform the high bench with the appointment of reliably conservative justices.
Here’s a look at what the court accomplished this term, and what its decisions mean for the future:
Ending a constitutional right to an abortion
The Supreme Court decision that had the most dramatic fallout this term was its June 24 ruling overturning its abortion rights precedents. The decision had the on-the-ground effect of making abortion illegal in several states – in some places, immediately after the ruling came down – while also opening the door to a new round of legal fights over access to the procedure.
Red states – with the green light from the Supreme Court – moved quickly to enact abortion bans and extreme restrictions, and abortion rights advocates scrambled to slow enforcement of the new prohibitions.
The ruling was a major victory not just for anti-abortion activists, but also for the conservative legal movement writ large, which saw Roe v. Wade as chief among several examples of the Supreme Court creating rights that lack explicit references in the Constitution’s text.
Practically speaking, the Dobbs opinion means that state and federal lawmakers now have the ability to enact abortion restrictions up to and include outright bans, though they are already facing court challenges from abortion rights advocates who argue that certain state constitutions protect a right to an abortion.
That the court overturned a 49-year-old precedent – and one rooted in a deeply divisive issue, affecting the most personal decision facing pregnant people and their families – was remarkable.
“Whatever the exact scope of the coming laws, one result of today’s decision is certain: the curtailment of women’s rights, and of their status as free and equal citizens,” the liberal justices wrote jointly in their dissent.
Raising the legal bar for states and localities defending gun safety laws
The 6-3 conservative majority made gun safety laws much more vulnerable to legal challenge in a case, called New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Bruen, that concerned New York’s restrictions on the public carrying of firearms.
The type of discretionary permitting regime – in which a gun owner must get special, discretionary approval to carry the firearm publicly – that was struck down in the case has been embraced by only a handful of other states, though those states contain some of the largest population centers in the country.
The bigger repercussion of the majority opinion written by Justice Clarence Thomas is that lower courts have now been instructed to view gun restrictions more skeptically. He wrote that the Constitution “presumptively” protects conduct covered by the Second Amendment’s plain text. It will be up to the government that is seeking to implement a new restriction to prove to the courts that the “regulation is consistent with this Nation’s historical tradition of firearm regulation,” Thomas said.
Under Thomas’ new test, courts must assess whether the regulation at hand has some historical parallel to how firearms were approached at the timing of the Constitution’s framing. Thomas emphasized that the historic notions of guns applied to modern firearm technology, yet he said the absence of a historical analog for a regulation could make the regulation unconstitutional.
A climate change case that weakens executive branch agency power
The Supreme Court dealt a major blow both to the Biden administration’s efforts to address climate change and the broader authority that executive branch agencies have to regulate across a variety of policy areas.
The court did so Thursday in a case called West Virginia v. EPA, where the justices were reviewing a lower court decision that said that the Environmental Protection Agency, under a 1970 provision of the Clean Air Act, had expansive power to issue rules targeting carbon emissions at power plants. A 6-3 conservative majority reversed that ruling, using a legal rationale that now may be wielded against a host of other types of regulations where government agencies are accused of overstepping their authority.
The justices in the EPA case fleshed out a legal doctrine known as the Major Questions Doctrine, which says that for an agency to issue a rule with major economic or political impacts, it must have received an explicit instruction from Congress to do so.
The court – reviewing a never-implemented Obama administration climate rule that the Biden administration has not sought to revive – said Congress had not given the EPA the authority to implement the sweeping regulations that Obama’s EPA had put forward. The ruling will likely boost future challenges to a climate rule for power plants that the Biden administration has been working to roll out. And it could provide fodder for lawsuits against other types of federal climate regulations, like those aimed at car emissions or emissions from the oil and gas industry.
It also stands to implicate the regulations coming from other agencies across the federal government, as decades of congressional gridlock have made executive agencies a chief source of policymaking.
Weakening the walls between church and state
The conservative court reshaped the playing field around questions regarding religious liberty and the separation between church and state.
In one case, the 6-3 majority said Maine could not exclude religious education from the voucher program it offers parents who live in rural areas without public schools. In another case, the court – again ruling on ideological lines – sided with a public high school coach who suffered professional reprisals for praying on the field after football games.
Not every religious liberty case before the court was as divisive. An 8-1 court ruled that Texas must allow a death row inmate’s spiritual adviser to “lay hands” on him in prayer during his execution. And the court voted unanimously against Boston for its refusal to raise a Christian flag atop a flagpole outside City Hall as a part of a program celebrating Boston’s greater community.
According to Mark Rienzi – the president of the religious liberty advocacy group, the Becket Fund – the through line connecting the Boston flag case to the cases concerning Maine’s voucher program and the praying high school football coach was the Supreme Court clarifying how governments should view the Establishment Clause.
Rienzi said that governments for decades at all levels had internalized an interpretation of the Establishment Clause that prompted them to treat those making religious expression worse than other kinds of actors.
Overall, the lesson to the court is ” ‘Hey governments, this is not the way you are supposed to do it,’ ” Rienzi told CNN.
Complicating the path for blocking immigration policies in court
While immigrant rights advocates secured a near-term win with a ruling that said immigration law allowed President Joe Biden to end a controversial Trump-era immigration policy, that ruling – and another from earlier in the term – will likely hamstring future legal efforts seeking to stop allegedly unlawful immigration policies.
In the pair of rulings, the Supreme Court restricted the authority that lower courts have to block the implementation of certain immigration policies alleged to be unlawful. In the earlier case, Garland v. Gonzales, the 6-3 conservative majority said lower courts could not offer classwide relief in such cases – which concern policies having to with arrest, detention and removal of immigrants. That case was then cited in the court’s end-of-term decision regarding the so-called Remain in Mexico policy put in place by the Trump administration.
The holding suggests that from now on, in cases concerning those types of policies, lower courts can grant relief that affects individual challengers but won’t be allowed to issue orders that broadly bar immigration officials from carrying out certain practices.
That could have wide-ranging ramifications for immigration policy. Over the last five years, a slew of legal challenges against immigration policies have disrupted the implementation of those measures.
Big picture, it appears the legal process for halting certain immigration policies in court will be much slower and arduous for immigrant advocates. The timeline for those cases to reach the Supreme Court is already long, and the high court accepts only a limited number of cases each year.
Making it more difficult to hold government officials accountable for unconstitutional conduct
In a pair of cases, the court limited the options for bringing civil lawsuits against individual government actors who have allegedly acted unconstitutionally while carrying out their official duties.
In a case called Egbert v. Boule, the court narrowed a precedent it had set in the 1971 ruling known as “Bivens,” which had allowed for an individual to sue a federal officer for damages if his fundamental rights were violated. In the Egbert case, the justices said unanimously that a federal border control agent could not face individual civil liability for alleged retaliation under the First Amendment.
In a part of the majority opinion from which the three liberals dissented, Thomas also severely limited the circumstances in which a Fourth Amendment excessive force claim could be brought against a federal officer.
The ruling had the effect of expanding the immunity protecting federal officials from private lawsuits, even if it didn’t overturn “Bivens” outright.
Later in the term, the court also undermined the so-called Miranda right protections – i.e. the warning suspects are supposed to receive from law enforcement that they have a right to remain silent and to obtain counsel – in a case called Tekoh v. Vega. The court said that a law enforcement official’s failure to provide a Miranda warning didn’t by itself make the official vulnerable to a civil lawsuit alleging a Fifth Amendment violation.
The ruling did not eliminate the Miranda right, as evidence obtained when it’s been violated would still be excluded from trial. But critics of the ruling said that, without the additional legal risk of a potential civil suit, law enforcement officials will feel less of an incentive to comply with their Miranda obligations.
CNN’s Ella Nilsen and Priscilla Alvarez contributed to this report.