The Supreme Court handed down two surprising, positive rulings Thursday deciding on voting rights and federal government powers, demonstrating a restraint that has been rare since the conservative majority was cemented with justices appointed by Donald Trump.
In the first, a congressional redistricting case from Alabama, the court reversed a decade’s worth of Voting Rights Act erosion. It ruled the state will have to redraw its congressional map to create a second district where Black voters are a majority instead of cramming them all into one. In the second case, the court ruled to preserve the rights of people participating in social welfare programs that receive federal funds.
These decisions show a remarkably different majority than the one which swept away abortion rights a year ago in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health ruling. They add to a pattern of surprising restraint developing in the court, including the decision not to strike down an assault weapons ban in Illinois using the emergency, or “shadow,” docket. This is the same court that used the shadow docket in the last few years to allow Texas to implement its vigilante-enforced abortion ban months before Dobbs, to weaken the Clean Water Act, and to strike down countless Biden administration rules.
The biggest surprise Thursday was who wrote the majority opinion preserving what’s left of the Voting Rights Act: Chief Justice John Roberts. If his political and legal career can be characterized as anything, it’s “lifelong crusade against voting rights.” As chief justice, he’s overseen a near-total dismantling of the 1965 law. To say he was not expected to be the champion of the last remaining effective scrap of the law banning racial gerrymanders is an understatement. Justice Brett Kavanaugh stepping over the ideological divide with him to form a majority was also a stunner.
The second big decision handed down was nearly as consequential and more shocking in its division: 7 to 2. Four of the court’s six conservatives—all but Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas—upheld the right of Medicaid beneficiaries to sue in federal court when they believe their rights are being violated by state officials. In this case, the spouse of a dementia patient in Indiana alleged he had been abused in a state-run nursing home and was suing under a Reconstruction Era law, Section 1983, enacted as part of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. It was written to protect the rights of Black Americans, allowing them to use the federal courts when state officials violated their constitutional or statutory rights.
What was at stake here was huge: the enforcement of federal Medicaid law to protect patients. On a broader scale, the ruling applies not just to Medicaid but to other federally funded safety net programs, like SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) or WIC, the food program for new mothers and their infants. The decision keeps this critical law for holding states accountable and ensuring they provide the full services required for the federal spending programs. It was a bit of a sleeper case which nonetheless had huge implications for social safety net programs and the civil rights of people using them.
Would there have been this much restraint from the court if they hadn’t been under a barrage of criticism from the public, the press, and Congress for the past year after the Dobbs decision? Almost certainly not.
For years, Roberts has been cast as a guy who is looking out for his own legacy, his hard-line conservatism tempered by not wanting to go down in history as the guy who oversaw the upending of decades of Supreme Court jurisprudence—and really didn’t want to look like a partisan. That was why he refused to be responsible for ending the Affordable Care Act, conventional wisdom argued. His zealous dismantling of voting rights was solid evidence against that premise, but it has stuck. Maybe he truly doesn’t want to be known as the guy whose court was so bad that it forced Congress to reform it.
The triad of Trump appointees—Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—have likewise shown moments of restraint in the past year, since their gleeful upending of a half-century of abortion rights precedent and the ensuing backlash. They could be grappling with the fact they’ve got decades left on the court amid the potential reforms people are talking about—including term limits—and figuring those are flames they don’t need to be fanning.
That’s good. Public pressure, congressional pressure, and media pressure seem to be working. There are still horrendous decisions to come; the court is almost certainly going to end affirmative action in higher education in the next few weeks. The court will have to be reformed, but it’s good to know the pressure campaign on the road to reform is doing some good.
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This week on "The Downballot," we're joined by guest host Joe Sudbay and law professor Quinn Yeargain for a deep dive into major political developments in three states. First up is Arizona, where a key GOP retirement on the Board of Supervisors in jumbo Maricopa County gives Democrats an excellent chance to win their first majority since the 1960s. Then it's on to Arkansas, where citizens are working to overturn a Republican bill that purports to ban "critical race theory" in public schools by qualifying a referendum for the ballot. Finally, we hit Michigan, where Democrats just advanced a measure to have the state add its Electoral College votes to a multistate compact that would elect the president by the national popular vote.