US Supreme Court kicks off potentially explosive session

The exterior of the US Supreme Court in Washington. (Reuters pic)

WASHINGTON: Sexual minority rights, abortion, immigration and guns – the Supreme Court convenes Monday to address an incendiary list of cases as the American political scene reaches fever pitch over efforts to impeach President Donald Trump.

The court’s balance has shifted to the right under Trump, who appointed judges Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh in his first term, and who is now gearing up to fight for re-election next November.

The court kept a low profile during its 2018-2019 session after Kavanaugh’s Senate confirmation descended into a mud-slinging battle over sexual assault allegations that he strenuously denies.

In its last term, the court “seemed to do everything it could to rise above the partisan rancour, to not be divided along partisan lines,” David Cole, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said.

But Cole warned that “this term, it’s going to be harder for the court – they already have cases involving very hot-button, ideologically divided issues.”

With election campaigning ramping up over the coming months, the court’s rulings will be closely watched by rival political camps.

Conservatives are now seen in the majority among the nine judges after Kavanaugh’s appointment, and liberals are on the defensive.

In the last election, Trump secured victory after wooing voters – including evangelical Christians – with promises to appoint right-wing judges who oppose abortion and defend the right to own guns.

Ethics, and politics

The court will on Tuesday dive into the issue of whether it is legal to fire someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Trump’s Republican administration argues that lawmakers in the past were not addressing gay rights when employment discrimination over “race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin” was banned.

LGBTQ campaigners, who won a major victory in 2015 when the court guaranteed the right to gay marriage, are calling on judges to ensure gay and transgender people are covered by the discrimination ban.

What’s the point of gay marriage if “you can get married on Saturday and fired on Monday?” ACLU lawyer Jay Kaplan asked ahead of the new session.

The court will also hear a challenge to a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana state – another flashpoint issue.

The date has not yet been set for when the judges will examine the merits of the abortion law adopted in 2014 in Louisiana.

But a decision will come before the end of the court’s term in June 2020, just months before the presidential election.

The law states that doctors at Louisiana abortion clinics must have admitting privileges at a hospital within 50km.

Abortion rights advocates say the restriction would force the closure of most clinics, but Louisiana says the law is needed because of the risk of a medical complication.

Knife-edge decisions

In February, the court issued an injunction blocking the law from taking effect.

Chief Justice John Roberts, a conservative, sided with the four progressives on the bench – setting the stage for a knife-edge decision on an issue that divides the United States.

On Nov 12, the Supreme Court will tackle another emotive case when it hears arguments over Trump’s effort to end the “dreamers” program that protects immigrants brought into the US illegally as children.

Trump has made a clampdown on immigration a keystone of his nationalist “America first” presidency.

A “right to bear arms” case due in December could be declared obsolete after New York city regulations were amended.

But, with gun violence high on the political agenda, the case has already been a partisan battleground.

Democrats argue that, by agreeing to hear the case, the court revealed its political bias – and the need for court reform.

“The Supreme Court is not well. And the people know it,” Democrat senators wrote in a legal brief.

“Perhaps the Court can heal itself before the public demands it be ‘restructured in order to reduce the influence of politics’.”

Highlighting sensitivity over the court’s work, Republicans reacted in fury, saying the Democrats were a clear threat to judicial independence.