The U.S. Supreme Court had another momentous, damaging, and highly political session of the court, where the supposed institutionalist Chief Justice John Roberts played political games, again. Roberts, and occasionally conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, avoided full-on MAGA decisions on cases, moderating for this session on voting rights in Alabama and Louisiana, and not blowing up federal elections with the independent state legislature theory. They saved up their really bad stuff for another favorite pastime of the majority: the erosion of civil rights. The decisions they made on affirmative action, student loans, and criminal justice will have sweeping ramifications, especially for people of color.
In their decision to end affirmative action in higher education, the ripple effect can extend for generations. Just one example experts have warned about is increased health disparities for Blacks and Latinos as fewer students of color are likely to be accepted to medical school. That means less access to already medically underserved communities, as Justice Sonia Sotomayor pointed out in her dissent. “[I]ncreasing the number of students from underrepresented backgrounds who join ‘the ranks of medical professionals’ improves ‘healthcare access and health outcomes in medically underserved communities,’” she wrote.
Fewer than 6% of physicians identify as Black, and only slightly more identify as Hispanic. A number of studies have shown improved health outcomes for Black and Latino patients—groups that have higher rates of poverty, chronic health problems, and being uninsured—who see doctors who share their race or ethnicity.
In one particular area—maternal health—this decision coupled with last year’s Dobbs decision ending abortion rights means the already disgraceful state of maternal health for women of color, and particularly Black women, is likely going to get even worse. Maternal deaths doubled in the U.S. between 1999 and 2019. The rate increased the most for American Indian and Alaska Native women over the last two decades, but the rate of Black women dying with pregnancy more than doubled in those 20 years.
Guess who is also disproportionately harmed by the court’s tossing out President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program? Of course it’s Black women, who are most likely to have debt and have the highest loan balances. “Black men and Black women both start out with more student debt than their white counterparts, and because of their lower earnings, they pay it down more slowly,” the St. Louis Fed found in a study last fall. “Gender and racial disparities in student debt thus grow over time.”
A horrifying criminal justice decision, authored by Justice Clarence Thomas, will result in innocent imprisoned people—again a population overrepresented by people of color—being unable to challenge their convictions. In 2019, the Supreme Court held in Rehaif v. United States that any person convicted of possessing a firearm as a felon had to have been proven to know they had a felony conviction when they owned the gun. Marcus DeAngelo Jones was convicted in 2000 for having a firearm after a previous felony conviction. Jones had challenged his conviction, and failed. After the 2019 Rehaif decision he appealed again, arguing he sincerely but incorrectly believed that his previous felony conviction had been expunged when he purchased the gun. The court denied him, essentially saying he had already used up his one challenge to his conviction even though he was legally innocent.
This won’t affect a huge population, but it shuts down an key avenue of appeal for innocent people in federal prisons. Nearly 40% of the federal prison population is Black, while Black people make up less than 14% of the U.S. population.
“I am … deeply troubled by the constitutional implications of the nothing-to-see-here approach that the majority takes with respect to the incarceration of potential legal innocents,” Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in dissent. “[F]orever slamming the courtroom doors to a possibly innocent person who has never had a meaningful opportunity to get a new and retroactively applicable claim for release reviewed on the merits raises serious constitutional concerns.”
It was a bad session for the constitution and for the individual rights of LGBTQ+ people, women, Black and brown people, as usual. The court is not done yet: Next term’s cases promise more destructive decisions on guns, the federal government’s regulatory power, criminal justice, and possibly on the abortion pill.
They’re on a destructive roll, this extremist majority, and aren’t going to stop any time soon. That is, unless Congress decides to stop them by enacting real court reforms. So yes, once again, we’re on the brink of another make-or-break election, hinging largely on the Supreme Court. It’s going to require a Congress and White House willing to exert their equal powers to constrain it.