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Big wins for Trump and sharp blows to regulations mark momentous Supreme Court term

WASHINGTON (AP) — Donald Trump and the conservative interests that helped him reshape the Supreme Court got most of what they wanted this term, from substantial help for Trump’s political and legal prospects to sharp blows against the administrative state they revile.

The decisions reflected a deep and sometimes bitter divide on a court in which conservatives, including three justices appointed by Trump, have a two-to-one advantage over liberals, and seem likely to reinforce the views of most Americans that ideology, rather than a neutral application of the law, drives the outcome of the court’s biggest cases.

The justices also contended with ethics controversies that led to the adoption of the court’s first code of conduct, though one with no means of enforcement. Months later came public statements from Justice Samuel Alito rejecting calls that he step aside from several cases over questions of his impartiality, including following the revelations that two flags associated with rioters who attacked the U.S. Capitol flew over Alito’s homes in New Jersey and Virginia.

Chief Justice John Roberts, often viewed with suspicion by Trump and his allies over his concerns about judicial independence and worries about the court’s reputation, delivered the most consequential decisions. Those include the court’s grant of broad immunity from criminal prosecution to former presidents and its reversal of a 40-year-old case that had been used thousands of times to uphold federal regulations.

“He’s got competing inclinations. One is to be the statesman and institutionalist,” University of California at Los Angeles law professor Richard Hasen said. The other, Hasen said, is to dig in “when it is something that is important enough to him.”

Presidential power is one of those issues for Roberts, who worked in the White House counsel’s office during the Reagan administration.

The end of the court’s term marked a remarkable reversal of fortunes for Trump as he seeks a second term as president.

Six months ago, he was readying for a criminal trial in early March in Washington on charges of election interference following his loss to President Joe Biden in 2020 and he was in danger of being kicked off the presidential ballot in several states.

In the court’s final decision issued Monday, the justices handed him an indefinite trial delay and narrowed the election interference case against him. Last week, they separately limited the use of an obstruction charge he faces that should give him even more legal arguments, months after the court restored Trump to the presidential ballot.

Each of the three cases stemmed from Trump’s actions in the aftermath of the 2020 election, culminating in the attack on the Capitol by his supporters on Jan. 6, 2021. But Roberts’ opinions offered only dry accounts of the events of Jan. 6, insisting the court “can not afford to fixate … on present exigencies.”

The court also overturned the Chevron decision, stripped the SEC of a major fraud-fighting tool and opened the door to repeated, broad challenges to regulations that, in combination with the end of Chevron, could lead to what Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson described as a “tsunami of lawsuits.”

The demise of Chevron marked the third straight year that conservatives explicitly or effectively got rid of major, decades-old court precedents. Two years ago, Roe v. Wade fell. Last year, it was affirmative action in higher education.

The Trump and regulatory cases seem to point in different directions about the power of the executive branch, said Michael Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University.

“On the one hand, the court is making it much harder for the government to act through administrative agencies but, on the other hand, the court is licensing the president to act lawlessly,” Dorf said. “Taken together, I think those two moves concentrate power in the White House in the political operations of the president and outside the context of what you might think of as the bureaucracy.”

The decisions also provoked spirited, sometimes barbed, discussions of judicial modesty. “A rule of judicial humility gives way to a rule of judicial hubris,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent from overturning Chevron. Roberts responded, saying humility in this case meant “admitting” and “correcting our own mistakes” in the original Chevron decision.

Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson chided Roberts for the “feigned judicial humility” of his opinion on immunity. Roberts mocked the dissenters’ “tone of chilling doom.”

In each of the Trump cases, the majority included Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, two of Trump’s three appointees, and two others, Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas, who also rebuffed calls to sit out the Trump cases. Those same justices, plus Roberts and Justice Amy Coney Barrett, formed the majority in the cases about federal regulations. The conservatives also voted together on a major homelessness case that found outdoor sleeping bans aimed at homeless encampments don’t violate the constitutional prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment — even when shelter space is lacking.

Roberts, though, has repeatedly defended the court from criticism that its justices were little more than politicians in robes. In a memorable clash with Trump in 2018, Roberts rebuked the then-president for complaining about the ruling of an “Obama judge.”

“We do not have Obama judges or Trump judges, Bush judges or Clinton judges. What we have is an extraordinary group of dedicated judges doing their level best to do equal right to those appearing before them,” Roberts said then.

But the court’s public standing has taken a hit in recent years, particularly since Roe was overturned. Seven out of 10 Americans said the justices are more likely to be guided by their own ideology rather than serving as neutral arbiters of government authority, according to a poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that was conducted before the final round of decisions was issued.

Abortion was one issue in which the court sidestepped the liberal-conservative divide by avoiding major rulings in a presidential election year when abortion is an animating issue, mainly because of the justice’s 2022 decision that led to abortion bans or severe restrictions in most Republican-controlled states.

A one-sentence order in a case from Idaho cleared the way for emergency abortions to resume, despite the state’s strict abortion ban. But it didn’t end the court case or answer key questions about whether doctors can provide emergency abortions elsewhere, even in states where abortion bans would prohibit them. The Idaho decision was accidentally posted on the court’s website a day early, reminiscent of the leak of the draft opinion two years ago that ended the constitutional right to abortion.

In a second abortion case, the justices unanimously dismissed a lawsuit from anti-abortion doctors who sought to roll back decisions made by the Food and Drug Administration to ease access to mifepristone, a pill used in nearly two-thirds of abortions in the United States last year. The decision explicitly avoided any ruling on the FDA’s actions, focusing entirely on the doctors’ lack of legal standing to sue.

The mifepristone case was one of several from the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans that made the court seem the picture of moderation. The justices also reversed 5th Circuit rulings that would have struck down a federal gun control law intended to protect victims of domestic violence, overturned the funding structure for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and barred Biden administration officials from trying to persuade social media platforms to remove misinformation.

The domestic violence gun law was the court’s first Second Amendment case since its landmark 2022 ruling that led to upheaval in the nation’s firearm laws by requiring any restrictions to have strong historical underpinnings.

Roberts also wrote the decision upholding the law that disarms people who pose a threat of physical violence. The finding could also give lower court judges some guidance on how they should apply the Supreme Court’s new history and tradition test.

In a separate case involving guns, the court overturned a Trump-era Justice Department regulation that banned bump stocks, which are rapid-fire gun accessories and were used in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. The court divided along ideological lines, with conservatives in the majority in another case limiting the discretion of regulators.

A term’s final days often produce a torrent of heated exchanges in the most contentious cases, and this year saw more than its share of big rulings that waited until the very end, despite a lighter-than-usual caseload.

In May, Justice Sonia Sotomayor telegraphed what the recent days might look like for her and the other liberal justices. “There are days that I’ve come to my office after an announcement of a case and closed my door and cried,” Sotomayor said after receiving an award from Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. “And there are likely to be more.”

Mark Sherman And Lindsay Whitehurst, The Associated Press