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A look back at the Supreme Court term that just ended, and what lies ahead

MILES PARKS, HOST:

The U.S. Supreme Court has wrapped another eventful term. This week alone, it struck down President Biden's student loan forgiveness plan and ruled in favor of a designer who didn't want to work on wedding websites for same-sex couples. In addition, it ruled against a controversial legal theory that would have given state legislatures nearly unchecked power to determine election rules. For some perspective, we're joined now by NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks for being here.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My pleasure.

PARKS: So let's take a big view. What stood out to you this term?

TOTENBERG: Well, you know, I look back, and last year, I and every other reporter covering the Supreme Court was saying that Chief Justice Roberts no longer was in control, that he was no longer the center of the court, and he didn't control the institution the way he once did. But he did this year. In decisions conservative and not so conservative, he was the controlling factor. And he seems to have, at least for this term - who knows what will happen next term - reestablished his chiefship (ph), if we can call it that.

PARKS: One of the things that stood out to me is - when I'm not hosting this program, I cover voting for NPR. And there were a number of democracy-related cases that came before the court this term. Can you talk us through what happened in those and whether there will be ramifications for the 2024 presidential election?

TOTENBERG: Well, if we look at the democracy cases, if we can call them that - that was the Alabama voting rights case in which the court, by a 5-4 vote and with the chief justice writing the opinion - he preserved the last shred of real enforcement of the Voting Rights Act at least in places that are polarized racially. And the Republicans could lose two or three congressional seats from that because of the way the state legislature had gerrymandered out most of the Blacks in the state into one district and left the rest with no real power. And so now there will be a second congressional district, which is probably majority Black or close to majority Black. And that same situation will be replicated in some other states like Louisiana, potentially Georgia and others. So that will have an effect.

The independent state legislature decision, which sort of shot down the most extreme version of that theory, which holds that only the state legislature can make rules and regulations and draw districts for congressional seats - and instead, the court shot that very extreme version down, said that state courts could conceivably overstep their boundaries, but they didn't say how. And so those are some of the areas where it will have a political effect.

PARKS: It feels like almost a laundry list of very polarized issues that the court took on this term. And that meant some strong disagreements between the court's conservatives and liberals. What's the latest with how the judges are sort of getting along these days?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're not warm and cozy. And the conservatives - and there are six of them. It's a supermajority. But they all seem to have a desire to be sort of the ideological leader of the court. And they have very different views. They're all conservative views, but they're very different methods of reasoning and conclusions. So you'll see these cases like the affirmative action case. Well, the chief justice wrote the majority opinion, and then, three other conservatives wrote separate opinions. They didn't disagree with what he said, but they wanted to get in their 2 cents worth. And that is not sort of a consensus-building kind of a place, I think.

PARKS: Well, and you noticed something in the Supreme Court opinion - right? - that kind of seemed to lend some light into how the judges are getting along. Can you talk us through that?

TOTENBERG: Chief Justice Roberts, at the end of his opinion striking down the student loan forgiveness program, wrote, it has become a disturbing feature of some recent opinions to criticize the decisions with which they disagree as going beyond the proper role of the judiciary. And then, he goes on to say, we didn't do that in this student loan case. We use the traditional methods. But he's basically replying to Kagan, who accused the conservatives of abandoning any judicial modesty or restraint. In replying to Kagan's dissent, which was an oral dissent from the bench, he wrote, we have employed the traditional tools of judicial decision-making. Reasonable minds may disagree with our analysis. In fact, at least three do. We do not mistake this plainly heartfelt disagreement for disparagement. It is important that the public not be misled either. Any such misperception would be harmful to this institution and our country.

You know, we haven't had any oral dissents from the bench until this week. I'm told that all during the pandemic, there were people who wanted to dissent from the Dobbs case. They wanted to read it from the bench. But the other members of the court said it wasn't possible. We were still - didn't have a public in there. We only had the press corps and whoever was arguing a case. So then, you move on to this year, and we haven't had any dissents from the bench until this week and the affirmative action case. And then, we had more today, one in the gay rights case from Justice Sotomayor and one in the student loan case from Justice Kagan. It's not unusual for justices to say mean things about each other in oral dissents from the bench or in written copy. This Roberts addendum, it's not for the members of the court. It's for the public.

PARKS: So outside of the opinions, there have been a lot of stories over the last couple months about the justices and their relationships with conservative billionaires. What's the latest there?

TOTENBERG: The chief keeps saying we're working on an ethics code or suggesting that, but what we hear is crickets. And I think that's probably 'cause he can't get everybody on the court to sign on. And you really need everybody. Because if two or three justices say, excuse me, I'm an independent justice, I don't have to do that, I think that's unconstitutional, I think it's wrong, then you don't have an ethics code. You have to have everybody on board. And clearly, he doesn't.

PARKS: NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you so much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Miles Parks is a reporter on NPR's Washington Desk. He covers voting and elections, and also reports on breaking news.
Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.