4 takeaways from the Supreme Court's most consequential term in years


Washington — It was one of the most momentous Supreme Court terms in decades, resulting in a flurry of blockbuster decisions on guns, abortion, the power of federal regulatory agencies and the prosecution of former President Donald Trump.

For most of those cases decided by the nation’s highest court, the outcomes reflected its rightward shift that was cemented by Trump himself when he appointed three justices during his four years in office. But others exposed emerging differences among the court’s six conservative members, with the spotlight on Justice Amy Coney Barrett in particular.

“It was a tsunami term,” Victoria Nourse, a professor at Georgetown Law, told CBS News. 

The significance of the term was evidenced by the flood of decisions in massive cases announced in the last week, capped by its final rulings on July 1. The Supreme Court typically wraps up its terms by the end of June and rarely extends its work into July, most recently doing so during the two terms that were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which concluded in the summer of 2020 and 2021.

Before then, the last time the justices wrapped their work in July was in 1996, according to an analysis from Adam Feldman and Jake Truscott, who conducted empirical research on the court and its most recent term.

Of the decisions that were released, 27 were unanimous, and 22 were divided 6 to 3, with varying combinations of justices. Of those decisions, the justices divided 6-3 along ideological lines in half, Feldman and Truscott found. Chief Justice John Roberts was most frequently in the majority this term, followed by Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Barrett, according to their analysis.

Here are the top takeaways from the Supreme Court’s term:

Curbing federal agency power while increasing judicial oversight

In one of the most consequential rulings from the court, the conservative majority overruled a 40-year-old decision on regulatory power that said courts should defer to an agency’s interpretation of an ambiguous statute if it is reasonable.

Known as Chevron deference, the framework effectively gave federal agencies the authority to enact rules and regulations to fill gaps in the laws passed by Congress. But after getting rid of that precedent, it will now be up to courts to decide whether an agency has acted within its authority, leaving judges to make calls about policy that had previously been decided by experts.

In another case, the Supreme Court said people accused of securities fraud are entitled to a jury trial in federal court, stripping the Securities and Exchange Commission of a key enforcement tool. And in yet another, it lengthened the time frame for companies to challenge federal regulations. The court in a fourth decision blocked a rule from the Environmental Protection Agency that seeks to curb air pollution while legal proceedings continue.

“Administrative law boils down to one question, which is, who decides?” said Allison Orr Larsen, a law professor at William and Mary. “These four cases weigh in on that ‘who decides’ question in very significant ways that tip the balance toward judges and away from an administrative agency.” 

In one week, she said, the court has dismantled deference to agencies on ambiguities in the law, elongated the time allowed to bring challenges to agency action, increased the skepticism that courts show agencies on questions of policy and curtailed when agencies can adjudicate disputes internally.

“You could call it an administrative law conservative makeover, or an extreme makeover,” Larsen said. “The decisions are truly remarkable in the number of ways that an agency now can lose. Another way to think of it is the breadth of the transfer of power to the judiciary.”

Wins for Trump

The most closely watched cases before the high court had significant legal and political ramifications for the former president and were added to the docket months after the Supreme Court’s term began in October 2023.

One of the disputes involved an effort to remove Trump from the Colorado ballot because of his actions surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021, assault on the U.S. Capitol. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled he could, indeed, be kept off the state’s primary and general election ballots under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, an obscure provision that bars oath-taking insurrectionists from holding public office.

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed that ruling, finding that states do not have the power to enforce Section 3 and keep a presidential candidate from the ballot. But the justices were fractured as to how far the high court should go with deciding the case.

Five conservative justices in the majority said only Congress, through legislation, could enforce the clause, while Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Ketanji Brown Jackson and Barrett wrote that it was not necessary for the Supreme Court to go so far as to lay out the means of federal enforcement.

The second dispute involving Trump arose out of his prosecution by special counsel Jack Smith for his alleged scheme to subvert the transfer of presidential power after the 2020 election. Trump, who pleaded not guilty to the four charges he faces in Washington, claimed that he was entitled to sweeping immunity from criminal charges because he was president at the time of the alleged unlawful conduct.

In a 6-3 ruling along ideological lines, the Supreme Court said former presidents are entitled to immunity for official acts taken while in office. The court’s conservative majority sent the case back to the federal district court overseeing Trump’s case for additional proceedings, delaying the start of a trial and making it highly unlikely one will take place before the presidential election on Nov. 5.

The Supreme Court divided a president’s conduct into three categories: official actions that are part of his “core constitutional powers;” other acts that are within the outer perimeter of his official responsibilities; and unofficial, private acts. A former president has absolute immunity for the first category; “presumptive” immunity for the second, which can be rebutted by the government; and no immunity for the third.

In an opinion authored by Roberts, the court said absolute immunity extends to Trump’s discussions with Justice Department officials. When it comes to Smith’s allegations that Trump pressured then-Vice President Mike Pence to unilaterally delay Congress’ certification of Electoral College votes on Jan. 6, the court said it is the government’s burden to rebut the presumption of immunity. 

They ordered the district court to determine whether and to what extent the rest of Trump’s alleged conduct, such as efforts to organize false slates of electors and urge his supporters to descend on Washington on Jan. 6, is subject to prosecution.

Sidestepping major rulings on abortion

Two cases before the Supreme Court this term involved abortion, and in both, the justices skirted decisions on the merits.

The first involved an effort to roll back a series of actions taken by the Food and Drug Administration to make a widely used abortion pill easier to obtain. The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the challenge brought by a group of anti-abortion rights doctors and medical associations, finding they lacked the legal right to sue.

The second case involved the intersection of a federal emergency care law and Idaho’s near-total ban on abortion. The court fight marked the first since it overturned Roe v. Wade in which the justices reviewed a state abortion law. 

The Biden administration argued that the federal law, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act or EMTALA, required hospitals in states with the most stringent abortion restrictions to offer emergency abortions to treat certain medical conditions. But Idaho said that would be a violation of its law, which only allows abortions when needed to save the life of the mother, or in cases of rape or incest.

The Supreme Court dismissed Idaho’s appeal of an adverse appeals court ruling and lifted its own stay to clear the way for physicians in the state to perform emergency abortions. The high court said it had intervened in the dispute too soon and is allowing the legal process to play out.

Both decisions are wins for the Biden administration as it has sought to protect abortion access, although they may be temporary.

In the abortion pill case, three states were involved in the challenge at the district court level and have vowed to continue the legal fight. In the EMTALA dispute, the case is likely to wind up before the justices again after more proceedings. Plus, there is a similar case pitting Texas’ near-total abortion ban against EMTALA that will be poised for action from the Supreme Court in its next term.

“Abortion is a special issue for this court because of Dobbs and the reaction to Dobbs,” Larsen said of the June 2022 decision reversing Roe. I think several of the justices don’t want to get in the business of deciding many abortion controversies if they can help it.

Barrett forges her own path

Nearly four years after Barrett was confirmed to the Supreme Court following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, this term showed the willingness of the youngest justice to split from her fellow conservatives on major decisions.

She authored the dissent, joined by the three liberals, to the decision that blocked the EPA’s plan to address interstate pollution and accused the majority of basing its ruling on an “underdeveloped theory” that is unlikely to succeed. 

Barrett also joined Kagan and Sotomayor in dissent in a case that narrowed the Justice Department’s use of a federal obstruction statute leveled against Jan. 6 defendants. There, Barrett wrote that the conduct of a Pennsylvania man charged for his actions during the Capitol attack was covered by the law. 

While she agreed with the majority that a former president is entitled to immunity from prosecution for official acts, Barrett declined to join a portion of Roberts’ opinion that said the government cannot introduce protected official acts as evidence in the prosecution of a former president.

“The Constitution,” Barrett wrote, “does not require blinding juries to the circumstances surrounding conduct for which presidents can be held liable.”

In a case involving the constitutionality of a provision of federal copyright law, she also split with Justice Clarence Thomas over his reliance on history and tradition to settle the issue, calling it “wrong twice over.” Joining parts of her concurring opinion in that dispute, which involved an attempt to trademark the phrase “Trump Too Small,” were Kagan, Sotomayor and Jackson.

Barrett “is still a conservative jurist, to be sure,” Larsen said, “but she’s conservative in the more traditional sense of that word. She’s cautious and deliberate. That is coming out in this term, maybe more than it has before.”



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