Washington, DC — Today, People For the American Way released its annual Supreme Court end-of-term report. “The Supreme Court’s 2020-21 Term Shows the Damage Caused by Trump-Appointed Justices” summarizes key Supreme Court rulings for the 2020-21 term and offers analysis on notable cases, impacts of the composition of the court, and implications for future rulings—especially regarding voting rights, health care, criminal justice and religious liberty.
This year, the SCOTUS term opened during a pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and the confirmation of the newly appointed Amy Coney Barrett, which created a 6-3 ultra-conservative majority and made more Americans aware of the critical importance of the Court in our lives.
The PFAW report analyzes the impact of more than 20 cases including, Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, California v. Texas, Fulton v. Philadelphia, Tanzin v. Tanvir, Torres v. Madrid, and Niz-Chavez v. Garland.
Read the full report here.
“This Supreme Court is dominated by Trump-appointed justices, with predictably disastrous results for voting rights as well as workers, consumers, and immigrants this term,” said President of People For the American Way Ben Jealous. “The harmful rulings coming out of this Court make it critical that Congress pass legislation to protect voting rights and shore up our democracy. We also have to build a strategy to reinforce the importance of fair courts and fair-minded judges, so we can counter the decades-long efforts by the Far Right to pack our courts, including our Supreme court, with ultra-conservative judges.”
“This Supreme Court term wrapped up with a one-two punch to voting rights and our democracy, with the rulings in Brnovich v. DNC and Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta,” said Paul Gordon, People For the American Way senior legislative counsel and the main author of the report. “While there were some bright spots, including the failure of the Right once again to destroy the Affordable Care Act, the Court’s rightward tilt is very pronounced and raises serious concerns about risks to our rights. We believe that as Republican-appointed justices and judges do more and more harm to people and to the country, the long-term movement to improve our courts will only get stronger.”
The report also highlights three cases the Court has agreed to hear next term that will affect the rights and lives of millions of people, including: an abortion rights case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health; a case concerning gun rights and the Second Amendment, New York State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. Corlett; and one case about equal rights under the Constitution for Puerto Ricans.
SUMMARY OF CASES/HIGHLIGHTED CASES:
Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee: On the final day of the term, Trump justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett cast deciding votes in a 6-3 decision to reverse a lower court and approve state practices that had the effect of discriminating against minority voters. The ruling devastates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, an important tool to help fight discrimination in voting. The July 2021 decision was in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.
Americans for Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta: On the last day of the term, in a 6-3 decision made possible by the three Trump justices, the Supreme Court struck down a California law requiring nonprofits to report (but not publicly disclose) their major donors to state authorities. But rather than addressing the specific facts before them in Americans For Prosperity Foundation v. Bonta, the ultra-conservatives issued a sweeping ruling that threatens to undermine traditional campaign contribution disclosure requirements.
Edwards v. Vannoy: In May 2021, the far-right justices made it easier for states to keep people in prison even when the procedures used to convict them are later deemed unconstitutional. Edwards v. Vannoy was decided in the increasingly familiar 6-3 split made possible by the three Trump justices.
Jones v. Mississippi: In Jones v. Mississippi, the 6-3 ultra-conservative majority abandoned two recent precedents that protected minors from unconstitutionally excessive prison sentences– Miller v. Alabama (2012) and Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016). They declared that minors can be sentenced to life without parole (LWOP), without addressing whether a juvenile is actually irredeemable, as long as the sentencing judge simply considers the defendant’s youth. The abandonment of Miller and Montgomery will help perpetuate racial injustice in the juvenile justice system, where Black youth are treated more harshly than their white counterparts with similar charges and prior records.
Torres v. Madrid: In the March 2021 case of Torres v. Madrid, Justice Gorsuch tried to open a new avenue for law enforcement to escape liability when they wrongfully shoot someone. In a 5-3 decision, the Court closed a loophole and determined that if law enforcement uses any kind of bodily force to apprehend someone but the person is able to flee, that is still considered a seizure under the Fourth Amendment. This is significant for police accountability going forward. (Justice Barrett did not participate in the case because it was argued before she joined the Court).
California v. Texas: Republicans at various levels of government across the country advanced this meritless lawsuit to eliminate every health benefit provided by the Affordable Care Act, including guaranteed health insurance regardless of preexisting conditions. The Supreme Court avoided a decision on the merits, ruling 7-2 in California v. Texas that the case should be dismissed because the parties did not have standing to file the lawsuit in the first place. Millions of people can continue to count on the health care protections that Republicans tried to take away.
Fulton v. Philadelphia: In perhaps the highest-profile religious liberty case of the term, Fulton v. Philadelphia, the Supreme Court ruled for Catholic Social Services (CSS) in a highly anticipated foster adoption discrimination case. However, the narrow nature of the ruling means that, at least for now, federal, state, and local governments remain free to pass and enforce neutral laws prohibiting anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination. While Fulton does not announce a new constitutional right to use religion as an excuse to discriminate or undermine existing or proposed laws prohibiting LGBTQ+ discrimination, the legal issues avoided by the majority will continue to arise in future cases, so the religious right’s campaign to redefine religious liberty remains a threat while the Court has an ultra-conservative majority.
Tanzin v. Tanvir: In a positive move for religious liberty, the Court unanimously held that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) allows lawsuits seeking monetary damages against individual federal employees who violate someone’s religious liberty rights under that law. Tanzin v. Tanvir (decided 8-0 because Barrett’s nomination was still pending when it was argued) involved three American Muslims who were improperly included on the federal government’s “No Fly List.” They will be able to sue the FBI agents who allegedly would only remove them from the list if they spied on their fellow American Muslims. People For the American Way Foundation had joined an amicus brief authored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State in support of the victims.
Pereida v. Wilkinson: Trump Justices Gorsuch and Kavanaugh cast the deciding votes in this 5-3 decision. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), an undocumented non-citizen who is ordered to leave the country is generally eligible to have the order cancelled on the grounds that it would harm their U.S. citizen spouse, children, or parents. But someone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” is not eligible for that relief. The far-right majority in Pereida v. Wilkinson made it much easier for officials to assume without sufficient evidence that the immigrant has committed such a crime.
Niz-Chavez v. Garland: In an ideologically mixed 6-3 lineup, the Court protected immigrants who receive notice that the government will hold a hearing to make them leave the country, but where the government fails to put all the information the immigrant needs into a single notice.
U.S. v. Arthrex: Trump justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, and Amy Coney Barrett cast deciding votes to invalidate part of a Congressional law that provides for the appointment of independent patent judges in cases concerning the reconsideration of patents. The 5-4 decision in United States v. Arthrexwas a continuation of the ultra-conservatives’ agenda over the last several years to weaken Congress’ authority. That shift is weakening Congress’s ability to create independent entities to perform important tasks without undue political influence, as with last term’s Seila Law decision striking down the structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because the president could not fire its director without cause. This is part of the conservative project to undermine the social safety net and roll back the New Deal.
Collins v. Yellen: Just two days after U.S. v. Arthrex, this shift in the Court’s separation-of-powers jurisprudence continued, with the six-justice majority made possible by the three Trump justices removing the limitations on the new doctrine established only a year ago in Seila Law. In Collins v Yellen, the Court invalidated part of a Congressional law that prevented the director of the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) from being fired at-will by the president. The six justices did this in a way that further weakened congressional authority to insulate agency officials from political pressure.
Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid: The Fifth Amendment states that private property shall not be “taken for public use without just compensation.” In Cedar Point v. Hassid, the far-right majority made possible by the Trump justices expanded the meaning of the Takings Clause in a way that limits organized labor in this particular case, and that threatens any number of government protections that affect monied interests. At issue was a California effort to protect farm workers from the type of widespread and notorious exploitation that Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta worked hard to oppose. Because many of these workers are migrants, they can be uniquely hard to reach in traditional ways. To make sure they are aware of their right to organize, a state regulation requires growers to give union organizers limited access to their property for temporary periods. Justice Breyer expressed concern over the ruling’s impact on “the large numbers of ordinary regulations” that permit temporary entry onto a property owner’s land – what the ultra-conservative majority calls an “invasion” of their property. These include inspections for food safety, preschool licensing verification, the welfare of children in foster homes, environmental protections, safety for people living in assisted living facilities, and more.
TransUnion LLC v. Ramirez: In a 5-4 decision that Trump’s three justices made possible, the Supreme Court made it much harder for victims of corporate malfeasance to use class action lawsuits to hold companies accountable when they violate the rights of vast numbers of people. Decisions like this are why corporate interests spent so many millions of dollars to put Trump’s nominees on the federal bench. The ruling also highlights the importance of every seat on the Supreme Court as we continue our fight for our courts.
About People For the American Way
People For the American Way is a progressive advocacy organization founded to fight right-wing extremism and build a democratic society that implements the ideals of freedom, equality, opportunity and justice for all. We encourage civic participation, defend fundamental rights, and fight to dismantle systemic barriers to equitable opportunity. Learn more: https://www.pfaw.org.