Court’s new term to look at abortion, death penalty, religious liberty

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) – The U.S. Supreme Court’s new term, starting Oct. 4, returns to its standard routine: hearing arguments in person and taking on hot-button issues.

The big cases, among the 34 it has so far agreed to hear, include those on abortion, the Second Amendment, and religious liberty issues related to a death penalty case and religious schools excluded from a state school choice program.

Likely the most anticipated case of the term is Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the abortion case that will be argued Dec. 1 and has been described as potentially taking down Roe v. Wade, the court’s 1973 decision legalizing abortion.

Here, the justices will consider the constitutionality of a Mississippi state law prohibiting abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. The state ban was struck down by a federal District Court in Mississippi in 2018 and upheld a year later by the New Orleans-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

If the court sides with Mississippi in this term’s case, it would be the first time it would allow an abortion ban before the point of viability and could lay the groundwork for other abortion restrictions.

Catholic leaders and pro-life organizations have shown support for the Mississippi law in friend-of-the-court briefs. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in its brief, stressed that abortion is not a right created by the Constitution and warned that if the court “continues to treat abortion as a constitutional issue,” it will face more questions in the future about “what sorts of abortion regulations are permissible.”

The court also is taking up two death penalty cases. On Nov. 1 it will look at an issue it has previously weighed in on: the presence of religious leaders at an execution. But this case will specifically examine exactly what a spiritual adviser can do during an execution.

The focus is on the case of John Ramirez, a Texas death-row inmate who was granted a stay of execution by the Supreme Court in early September based on his rejected appeal for his pastor to pray over him, with his hands on him, in the execution chamber.

This year the court will also hear a government appeal to reinstate the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It will review a lower court’s decision that said errors made by the judge in Tsarnaev’s trial tainted his sentencing.

Another big case, that similarly echoes previous ones, is the Dec. 8 oral arguments in Carson v. Makin, where the court will determine if Maine violated the Constitution by prohibiting students from using funds from a state school choice program for schools that provide religious instruction.

This term, the court also will look at handgun laws, reviewing a New York law, upheld by the lower courts, that requires individuals to have a license to carry a concealed gun outside the home.

The court also will take up two immigration cases involving immigrants who were ordered to be deported but claimed they were entitled to humanitarian relief and can’t be deported to their home countries because they could be tortured or persecuted there. They have argued that after spending more than six months in immigration detention awaiting the resolution of their claims, they are entitled to a hearing before an immigration judge.

With all of these cases in the wings, Supreme Court watchers have expressed concern over the court’s current ability to find general consensus or narrowly decide cases as it did in previous term.