The top court’s decision on abortion likewise seemed to deliver only a short-term win for liberals.
In that case, the court’s four liberal justices voted to strike down a Louisiana law that threatened to limit the state to one abortion clinic on the basis that the law didn’t have any medical benefits and posed a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions.
Roberts joined the liberals, but made it clear that he was only doing so because the court had struck down a nearly identical law in 2016. In future cases, Roberts suggested, he will apply a more narrow formula to assessing the legality of abortion laws, a move that could allow measures as restrictive as Louisiana’s to be upheld as long as they are not identical to it.
Just how fast those laws could be declared lawful was illustrated a few days after the court ruled in the abortion case, known as June Medical Services v. Russo.
On July 2, the court ordered the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider two Indiana abortion laws the appeals court had struck down, regarding parental notification and mandatory ultrasounds, in light of its decision in June Medical Services.
“That is a pretty strong indication that at least five of the justices think they’re too restrictive,” said Carolyn Shapiro, co-director of Chicago-Kent College of Law’s Supreme Court institute.
Shapiro added that the fact that the court’s most high-profile cases seemed to be wins for liberals gave cover to some of the more consequential but under-the-radar wins for conservatives.
A decision that weakened the independence of the director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Shapiro noted, seemed to lay the groundwork for undermining other independent agencies that tend to be opposed by conservatives.
While the court’s mixed bag of opinions has so far failed to satisfy liberals or conservatives, just about everyone acknowledges that the situation could change quickly, particularly given the likelihood of another vacancy in the next presidential term.
Four of the nine justices are in their 70s or 80s. The eldest, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, is 87 and has fought a number of health problems. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has made it clear that he would work to fill any vacancy on the court quickly.
“Any one of those cases could have changed with one appointment,” said the University of Michigan’s Litman.