Apr 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Jackson joins a Supreme Court at fever pitch

Photo illustration of Ketanji Brown Jackson surrounded by shapes and image of the Supreme Court building
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A pile of big, polarizing cases is already waiting for Ketanji Brown Jackson at the Supreme Court.

The big picture: Jackson will take her seat on the court just as it's diving headfirst into the most controversial issues in American politics — and at a moment when its conservative majority is poised to lock in victories that the right has been chasing for years, sometimes decades.

Driving the news: Jackson will start hearing cases when the court's next term begins in October. And even with only about a dozen cases on the docket so far, that term is already shaping up to be a dramatic one.

Affirmative action: The use of race in college admissions has seemed to be on thin ice at the Supreme Court for years, and this term may be the final nail in the coffin.

  • The court is set to hear challenges to the admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. Both schools give added weight to Black and Hispanic applicants; the lawsuits say that’s a form of discrimination against Asian Americans.
  • Three of the court’s six conservative justices voted in 2016 to strike down the affirmative action program at the University of Texas. The other three weren’t on the court at that point.
  • The Harvard and UNC cases not only ask the court to throw out these specific programs, but also to overturn its own precedent and close the door on all uses of race in the admissions process.
  • Jackson said during her confirmation hearings that she’d recuse herself from the Harvard case, due to her affiliation with the school.

Same-sex marriage: Remember a few years ago, when a baker who refused to bake cakes for same-sex weddings took his case all the way to the Supreme Court? The justices punted in that case, but it seemed pretty clear that future plaintiffs in the baker’s situation were likely to win their cases.

  • The court will hear a suit in its next term filed by a graphic designer who wants to make wedding websites, but not for same-sex weddings. She lives in Colorado, and Colorado law says businesses that are open to the general public can’t turn away customers because they’re gay.
  • The court will debate whether there should be an exception to accommodate business owners’ religious objections to same-sex marriage.
  • While every case presents unique questions, in general, the court almost always sides with people looking to more freely live by their religious beliefs.
  • Over the past several years, the justices sided with a Muslim employee who was told not to wear a headscarf, a Muslim inmate who wasn’t allowed to grow a beard and a Christian company that objected to providing birth control to its workers.

Voting rights: When Alabama drew new boundaries for its congressional districts last year, it ended up with one majority-Black district and smaller numbers of Black voters dispersed through several other districts. Critics sued, calling it an illegal act of racial gerrymandering.

  • A trial court agreed, and told the state to draw a new map. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 vote, allowed Alabama to leave its district lines in place while the courts sort out whether those lines are illegal.
  • Alabama will be able to carry out its primaries this year before the court reaches a ruling on the merits.
  • This case matters not just for Alabama, but as part of the court's approach to voting rights cases overall.

What’s next: Before Jackson even takes her seat, the court is expected to significantly roll back abortion rights — which would open the door to a flood of new state laws that restrict the procedure.

  • The inevitable challenges to those laws would mean that abortion could come back to the Supreme Court relatively often over the next several years.
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