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A preview of the Supreme Court's new, highly anticipated term


The U.S. Supreme Court starts a new term tomorrow. Because of the pandemic, this will be the first time in more than a year that the justices will be in the courtroom together - actually, all but one. Justice Brett Kavanaugh tested positive for COVID last week. And as a result, we are told he will take part in court proceedings remotely from his home. Still, there's a menu of blockbuster cases that will come before the court this term. We wanted to hear more about that, so we called NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

Nina, thank you so much for joining us.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: My pleasure, Michel.

MARTIN: Nina, you know, there are a lot of high-profile cases being heard this term that could have major political implications. Why is that? Is this a coincidence?

TOTENBERG: No. These issues were deliberately selected by the court's new conservative supermajority. Their goal is to chip away at or outright overrule nearly 50 years' worth of abortion decisions, for instance. Or they want to expand other decisions, like those protecting gun rights and religious rights. Now, for the first time, since the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett, the court has six solidly conservative members. And it's decided to put on the docket, front and center, some massive social issues that it has ducked in the past.

MARTIN: OK. But if the conservatives are sticking together to create the environment, to make decisions that conservatives want on issues like abortion, for example, doesn't this make the court seem political?

TOTENBERG: You know, it's a good question, Michel. The court's reputation in two major polls has taken a big hit. A Gallup poll, for instance, found that public approval of the court performance slid to a new low of 40% including, quote, "less than a majority of Republicans, Democrats and independents." Now, some of that happened after the court allowed a Texas law banning all abortions effectively after six weeks. And the court allowed that law to go into effect. And to counter some of this, some of the justices, both liberals and conservatives, have in recent speeches said that they're not partisans. But there appears to be a growing divide on how they view their work and how the public views them and what they're doing.

MARTIN: OK. So let's talk about the big cases - the abortion, guns, religious rights. Could you just - as briefly as you can, what's involved in these arguments?

TOTENBERG: Well, let's start with abortion. On December 1, the court's scheduled to hear arguments in a case testing a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. That timeframe is a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions, which declared that women have a constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy up to the point when a fetus can survive outside the womb, usually at about 24 weeks.

Then there are guns. It's the first gun case before the court in more than a decade. And it's brought by gun owners against a New York law that requires a person who wants to carry a gun outside the home to get a special license, issued at the discretion of local authorities after a showing that there's a proper cause or need for carrying the gun. New York turned down the gun owners in this case because it said they didn't have a special need to carry weapons outside the home for self-defense. And we're going to see whether the Supreme Court thinks one should have a right to carry weapons outside the home under the Constitution.

Religious rights - there's a case for Maine involving particular restrictions on taxpayer aid to religious schools. Under the state law, Maine's administrative districts, basically tiny towns, can contract with a nearby public school or private school to take their students, or the town can pay the tuition at a public or private school that the parent chooses. There's just one exception. Tuition can only be paid to a nonsectarian school. The state says that's in order to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not used to fund religious education.

MARTIN: Nina, before we let you go, we mentioned earlier that except for Justice Kavanaugh, who tested positive for COVID, this will be the first time in more than a year that at least eight of the justices will be in the courtroom together. Do you have a sense of what effect this might have on the proceedings?

TOTENBERG: Well, they're going to go back to the usual free-for-all question and answer period and then, at the end, allow for extra-special questions in order of seniority. I don't know if that's going to mean that the arguments are incredibly long instead of the usual rigid format that ends them at a half an hour, typically. But I guess I'll be able to tell you more after Monday.

MARTIN: All right, thank you. That's NPR's Nina Totenberg. Nina, thank you.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg
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.