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A Historic Year in the Law: A Review of the Supreme Court’s Term

July 23, 2020

Steven Schneebaum, Practitioner-in-Residence; Interim Director of International Law and Organizations, Johns Hopkins SAIS
Introductory remarks by Nina Gardner, Adjunct Lecturer in International Law, Johns Hopkins SAIS

Schneebaum began the conversation by suggesting that the 2019-20 term of the U.S. Supreme Court has produced the most consequential opinions of any term in this century. He highlighted several significant cases and the overall lessons to be learned, relating to the constitutional separation of powers, how to read statutory texts, cultural flashpoints such as abortion and gay rights, and the role of religion in the public square.
Schneebaum emphasized several key points.  
First, Chief Justice John Roberts has shown himself to be a committed institutionalist, focusing on the need to preserve the dignity and the role of the Supreme Court.
Second, the court has used the doctrine of Stare Decisis, the principle by which courts are to abide by the outcomes of earlier cases, not only as a rule of decision, but as an important element in promoting public respect for the court itself and particularly for its non-political image.
Third, the conservative wing of the court has abandoned its traditional insistence on strict constructivism and has become more transparent in relying on such extrinsic factors as the intentions of the Congress that drafted the legislation being analyzed.
Fourth, the court has unequivocally declared that the president is subject to the rule of law, but it remains extremely differential to the powers of the president and seems unwilling to address at least some of the more obvious elements of presidential misconduct.
Finally, the court has shown itself during this term, to be more prepared than in previous years to accept religion as a justification for conduct that would otherwise be illegal.
In his concluding remarks, Schneebaum emphasized that the US is currently facing challenges of extreme magnitude, particularly as the presidential administration continues to undermine the courts. However, he noted that despite the dissatisfaction and frustration that many people feel toward the Supreme Court, it is the only safeguard they have to protect themselves against fates incompatible with the Constitution that was left to us by our founding fathers.