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What the US Supreme Court will rule on next

July 17, 2022

With landmark decisions about abortion and climate protection, the Supreme Court's past term has been one of the most momentous in the history of the US. Here's what's next for the country's highest court.

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Protesters in front of the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC
Protesters gathered in front of the US Supreme Court after Roe v. Wade was overturned in JuneImage: Brandon Bell/Getty Images

The US Supreme Court is on break right now. Chief Justice John Roberts formally announced the start of the judicial body's summer recess on June 30. Its next term will start on October 3.

The break comes after a tumultuous past few weeks. The nine justices have made a number of decisions that have caused an uproar in the US and beyond, including curbing the Environmental Protection Agency's authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, ruling that states couldn't impose strict laws on carrying handguns in public ― and overturning the constitutional right to abortion, rolling back the decision made in the historic 1973 Roe v. Wade case. Since the federal right to terminating a pregnancy fell, several states have already instituted abortion bans.

The repeal of Roe v. Wade marks the end of an era in the US. Reactions to the ruling ― celebrations on the conservative right, horror and anger on the liberal left ― show once more how deeply divided the US now is.

US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade ruling

After making several rulings that will change US society for decades to come, the nine justices, six of them conservative, three liberal, have three months to relax now. Here are some of the cases that the court has already agreed to hear when its new term starts in October.

Election law

The Supreme Court will hear two cases on states' authority over election proceedings. In Merrill v. Milligan, it will have to decide whether Alabama's restructuring of its seven electoral districts violates the Voting Rights Act. If the justices decide in favor of the Republican legislature's plan, it will put most of the state's Black voters in a single district. Despite Black citizens making up more than a quarter of the population in Alabama, their vote would effectively only matter for one of the state's seven House of Representative seats. Traditionally, Black Americans tend to vote Democratic.

There is no date yet for when the Supreme Court will hear the case, so it's likely that the district map redrawn by Alabama's Republican leadership will stay in place for the November 2022 midterm election.

In Moore v. Harper, the court will also have to decide the legality of a redrawn electoral district map, this time in North Carolina. The state court has said the new map is unconstitutional, the Republican legislature has said the state court has no power to decide that. If the Supreme Court supports this view, it will mean that state courts cannot review how the legislature handles election issues. This could become important if, like after the 2020 presidential elections in some states, there are disagreements over perceived irregularities. State leaders could then decide to side with their party's candidate and rule in their favor, without the courts being able to weigh in.

President Donald Trump giving a speech at a podium
Donald Trump falsely claimed that Joe Biden only won certain US states in the 2020 election because of irregularitiesImage: SHAWN THEW/Newscom/picture alliance

Affirmative action

Because of decades of racism pervading all levels of society, many universities in the US today make a point of admitting a certain number of non-white students. This admissions process, which takes race into account, is called affirmative action, and is based on the idea that many non-white children don't have the same access to educational opportunities growing up as their white counterparts. The Supreme Court will hear two cases brought by the conservative NGO Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA) against Harvard, a private university, and the University of North Carolina, which is public.

SFFA wants race to play no role in college admissions. Chief Supreme Court Justice John Roberts seems open to that idea. "The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race," Roberts wrote in a 2007 opinion.

If the Supreme Court abolishes affirmative action, the number of Black students at selective universities is likely to shrink significantly, says New York Times journalist David Leonhardt, who has reported on affirmative action for two decades.

Harvard campus
Harvard would likely have a less diverse student body if affirmative action was made illegalImage: AP

Free speech and anti-discrimination laws

In 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, the Supreme Court will have to decide whether a business owner can reject certain customers on the basis of his or her personal beliefs. Lorie Smith, a website designer who offers services through her company 303 Creative LLC, does not want to create wedding websites for customers from the LGBTQ community. Lower courts have previously ruled that her refusal of clients in same-sex couples violates anti-discrimination laws in her state of Colorado.

Smith's lawyers argue that by insisting Smith cannot discriminate against same-sex couples, the state of Colorado forces her "to convey messages that violate her religious beliefs."

If the Supreme Court goes along with this reasoning and rules in Smith's favor, it will be sending out the message that religion is an acceptable reason to refuse someone service. That in turn could make it more difficult for same-sex couples to access certain services in conservative parts of the country, where many business owners might not be accepting of LGBTQ people.  

Two women wrapped in a large rainbow flag
Can business owners reject same-sex couples as clients on the grounds of religious beliefs?Image: Christoph Hardt/Geisler-Fotopress/picture alliance

What about contraception and same-sex marriage?

Aside from cases that are already on the docket, there has also been some speculation as to what else the Supreme Court could have its eye on. Justice Samuel Alito made it clear in the majority opinion on the ruling that led to the end of Roe v. Wade that the Supreme Court's decision should not be viewed as a threat to other landmark cases. But another of the court's conservative justices, Clarence Thomas, found other words in his concurring opinion.

"In future cases, we should reconsider all of this court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell," Thomas wrote.

Griswold refers to a 1965 Supreme Court decision that established a married couple’s right to use contraception without government interference. Lawrence is from the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, in which the court ruled that states could not criminalize sodomy, or same-sex sexual intercourse. Obergefell refers to the 2015 decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the US.

Whether any of these landmark precedent rulings face the same fate as Roe v. Wade will only become clear once the Supreme Court returns to work after summer recess.  

Edited by: Anne Thomas 

Carla Bleiker
Carla Bleiker Editor, channel manager and reporter focusing on US politics and science@cbleiker
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