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The Supreme Court flexes its muscles

Patriotic-themed flags
(Los Angeles Times)

The Supreme Court’s rulings on President Trump’s taxes got the lion’s share of attention this week, but the court’s other ruling on the final day of its term spoke loudly about how the justices see their role.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court boldly declared that almost the entire eastern half of Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, the state’s second-largest city, remains Native American land, restoring a degree of tribal sovereignty over some 1.8 million people.

In dissent, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. lamented that the ruling would upset more than a century of settled expectations in the state. Justice Neil M. Gorsuch, who joined the court’s four liberals and wrote the majority opinion, dismissed such concerns with flourish: “On the far end of the Trail of Tears was a promise,” he wrote. “We hold the government to its word.”

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For Native Americans, the case represented one of the biggest legal victories in decades. For the rest of the country, the case holds an added lesson: This is not a court that shies away from wielding power.

The court and the election

Set against the near-paralysis of a Congress divided between the two parties and the chaos of the executive branch under an embattled and increasingly distracted president, the court’s exercise of its authority in a series of high-profile decisions over the last few weeks stands out even more.

In the closing weeks of the term, the justices vastly expanded job rights for gay, lesbian and transgender Americans, blocked Trump’s effort to rescind protections against deportation for young immigrants, struck down a Louisiana law restricting access to abortion services, expanded the autonomy of religious groups to conduct their affairs without the constraints of secular law and, on the final day, ruled that a state grand jury has the right to subpoena Trump’s tax returns and other financial records.

Several of those cases, notably the ruling on civil rights for LGBTQ Americans, came as Roberts sided with the court’s four-member liberal bloc to rule against Trump.

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Despite those victories for the liberals, however, the court remains in most cases a strongly conservative institution — typically sympathetic to business interests, skeptical of government regulation, friendly to the claims of conservative religious groups and loath to expand the rights of criminal defendants.

If Joe Biden wins the presidential race, which, at least for now, he leads by a large margin, and brings a Democratic Senate along with him, as Republicans currently fear, the court would become the one remaining bastion of conservative power in Washington.

That prospect has led to much fevered speculation about whether either of the court’s oldest Republican appointees, Justice Clarence Thomas, 72, or Samuel A. Alito Jr., 70, will step down before the end of this year to give Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) a final shot at cementing a longer-term conservative majority.

So far, there’s no sign that either of the justices plans to quit, and, given Biden’s age — 77 — both may decide to emulate the court’s senior liberal, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 87, and try to simply outlast the other party. Ginsburg herself and the court’s other elder Democrat, Justice Stephen G. Breyer, 81, seem determined to keep going through the election, assuming their health allows that.

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The Republican justices might well hesitate to step down now. A fight over a court nomination during the election campaign would put huge pressure on Republican senators up for reelection in swing states, such as Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Cory Gardner of Colorado and Thom Tillis of North Carolina, each of whom already trails their Democratic challengers in polls.

A nomination battle after the election, in a lame-duck session with a nominee from a defeated president, would risk delegitimizing the entire court.

Even if the country can avoid that sort of cataclysm, there’s an increasing likelihood that a conservative five-justice majority will confront a newly empowered Democratic administration and Congress next year, opening the way for clashes that would parallel those of the early New Deal, when a conservative court repeatedly struck down the actions of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration.

Already, many people in the left wing of the Democratic Party advocate expanding the size of the court to give a newly elected Democrat a chance to change its makeup. Their proposals to some extent resemble the court-packing plan that Roosevelt backed in 1937 before the high court changed course and began upholding New Deal measures.

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The Republicans’ decision in 2016 to prevent President Obama from filling the vacancy caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia looms large in the current Democratic arguments: Many party activists still refer to that seat, eventually filled by Gorsuch, as “stolen” from their side by McConnell and therefore illegitimate.

Trump, in his typical manner, is likely to further inflame partisan feelings about the court between now and election day. He’s often pointed to Gorsuch and his other nominee, Brett M. Kavanaugh, as among his biggest achievements and a main reason for social conservatives to vote to reelect him. In the aftermath of the court’s decisions on gay rights and abortion, both of which were major disappointments to those conservatives, he’s argued that they should vote to reelect him to get more conservatives onto the court.

By the quirks of history, the high court has had a conservative majority continuously since 1970 even as Democrats have held the White House for 20 of those 50 years. McConnell has maneuvered assiduously to try to extend that majority into the future.

Soon, if current trends hold, that conservative majority, unabashed about asserting its authority, may confront a Democratic majority in Congress that has moved significantly to the left and already has deep skepticism about the court’s role.

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Biden, the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has opposed plans to change the number of justices or take other steps that he sees as improperly politicizing the judiciary. If he wins in November, add the future of the high court to the list of issues on which he and his party’s left could come to blows.

Schools: the latest coronavirus battleground

As coronavirus caseloads soar nationwide, Trump this week began to push aggressively to open schools this fall, a move that has predictably turned the issue into a source of partisan conflict.

In Los Angeles, the county’s top health official privately warned school officials that reopening may be impossible if the state cannot get the current surge of cases under control, as Howard Blume and Eli Stokols reported.

Should children go back to school in September? Interviews with parents and a new poll show widespread stress and division in California.

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The poll, done by a coalition of community groups in consultation with the L.A. Times, shows that about 40% of California adults would like to stick with distance learning in the fall, roughly another 40% favor a limited reopening with staggered attendance days or half-days to keep classrooms from being crowded and only about 20% favor a full reopening.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Texas, Florida and several other states, death tolls have begun rising fast after weeks of decline nationwide. The increases undercut a major talking point for Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who have downplayed the severity of the current outbreak by pointing to low numbers of deaths.

As Noam Levey reported, medical experts have consistently predicted that death rates would rise. They’ve pointed out that an increase in deaths typically lags a few weeks behind an increase in the number of people being hospitalized.

The administration has provided little help to states in combating the recent rise. Long term, their plan depends heavily on developing a vaccine.

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As Jennifer Haberkorn reported, a successful vaccine campaign requires a lot of mundane things to go right, including finding ways to stockpile enough syringes. The administration is relying on two largely untested suppliers for syringes, she discovered.

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Trump likes at least one Mexican

Trump and Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador have forged an unlikely alliance, Tracy Wilkinson and Don Lee reported.

López Obrador came to Washington on Wednesday, giving Trump an opportunity to tout an achievement — the new trade agreement with Mexico and Canada — and get some public praise. The Mexican leader flattered Trump extensively in their joint appearance.

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Both presidents are trying to downplay the COVID-19 crisis and revive their economies, Wilkinson and Lee reported.

Money up, registration down

Democrats are raking in massive donations in key Senate races around the country, Matt Pearce reported. The latest numbers from federal election filings show Democratic candidates raising unprecedented amounts of money in states including Montana, Maine and North Carolina.

Their Republican opponents have so far not reported their fundraising totals through the end of June, which are due to be disclosed next week. Campaigns typically are happy to tout the numbers when they’re doing well and hold back when the numbers don’t look so good.

But while the money picture looks favorable for the Democrats, voter registration figures give them more reason to worry, Evan Halper reported. The number of new voters coming onto the rolls plunged amid the pandemic. In response, progressives are trying to reinvent the voter registration drive, using new technology and other techniques, he wrote.

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Biden begins to roll out policy

Biden this week touted a $700-billion plan to boost U.S. manufacturing, Melanie Mason wrote. It’s the first of several policy rollouts the Biden campaign plans over the next several weeks in the run-up to the Democratic convention, which will take place in shrunken form in late August.

The plans follow a long series of negotiations between Biden’s representatives and allies of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in which they worked out compromises on policy toward climate change, taxes and a host of other issues.

Sanders, in a step toward unifying the party, said the compromise platform, if implemented, would make Biden “the most progressive” president since Roosevelt. Republicans quickly circulated his words as part of their effort to portray Biden as captive to the Democrats’ left wing.

The hardest sales job

Meet Immanuel Jarvis: He’s Black and working to reelect Trump, and as Mark Barabak reports, that’s not an easy assignment. Jarvis, a salesman by profession, is working to persuade Black voters to back Trump in the swing state of North Carolina. Like many Black conservatives, he often faces scorn.

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“If I was your mother, I’d be ashamed of you for who you are,” he says people tell him.

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Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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