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Making sense of the Supreme Court’s historic year

The TMC 2022 roundups: U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of the United States. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
6 min

The Supreme Court certainly did make headlines in 2022. Dominating news coverage was the unprecedented leak in the Dobbs v. Jackson’s Women’s Health case, revealing that the conservative majority planned to use the case to overturn the landmark abortion rights ruling in Roe v. Wade (1973). A month and a half later, the actual ruling stripped women in the United States of a constitutional right to an abortion. That decision prompted mass mobilization, forecasts that it might affect the upcoming midterm elections and increasing concern over whether the Supreme Court would lose its legitimacy.

But 2022 was historic for the Supreme Court for another reason. On June 30, Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first Black woman to join the nation’s highest court. With Jackson’s appointment, four women now serve on the Supreme Court, for the first time in history.

Here’s how political science helped us make sense of this unprecedented year at the Supreme Court:

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Dobbs and abortion rights – the leak, the ruling, and how we got here

On May 2, Politico published a leaked draft of the Dobbs opinion, authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., showing that a Supreme Court majority was ready to overturn the right to an abortion enshrined in the 1973 decision Roe v. Wade. Liberal and conservative media referred to the leak as “unprecedented” and “shocking.”

Here at TMC, political scientists helped put those claims in context. Julie Novkov analyzed the leak, explaining the court’s norms of secrecy and examining the decision’s additional implications. Nathan T. Carrington and Logan Strother explained that, according to research, the leak itself probably would not hurt public opinion toward the court — but that an unpopular decision overturning Roe certainly would.

Once the Supreme Court finally handed down that unpopular decision in June, Novkov came back to explain that the way the Dobbs decision was written revealed a deeply fractured court, suggesting that the long-held norms of collegiality had finally broken down on this polarized Supreme Court.

TMC ran a series of pieces revealing how the court reached this moment. My coauthor Joshua C. Wilson and I explained our research into the Republicans’ “scorched-earth” politics and the growing effectiveness of the conservative legal movement. Carrington and Strother had already examined the increasing coziness of the court’s conservatives with conservative policy organizations like the Federalist Society, while Rebecca J. Kreitzer and colleagues explained that conservative Republican women were key in electing anti-abortion candidates and building anti-abortion pressure groups.

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After Roe, mobilization, midterms, and the Supreme Court’s legitimacy crisis

TMC also took a look at what the post-Roe political landscape might look like, who would be most affected by the decision and what the ruling might mean for other reproductive rights. I wrote about the promise — and peril — of Congress trying to codify Roe in federal law. Kelsy Kretschmer and colleagues looked at how the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs could energize women to turn out and vote for Democrats in the November midterm elections.

Christine M. Slaughter and Chelsea N. Jones explained how and why Black women would be most acutely affected by the loss of abortion rights, while Rebecca Best showed us that the risk of violence would increase in a post-Roe United States. Other scholars revealed how the ruling could jeopardize other reproductive rights, such as IVF and contraception. Scholars also grappled with Justice Clarence Thomas’s threat in Dobbs to overturn LGBTQ rights. Alison Gash explained how Congress’s attempt to protect same-sex marriage with the Respect for Marriage Act might fall short if the Court does overturn the right established in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015).

Dobbs was only the most widely discussed decision in the court’s sharp turn to the right last term. Not surprisingly, a September 2022 Gallup poll revealed Americans felt the lowest level of trust and confidence in the Supreme Court since Gallup started asking in the 1970s. Several scholars explained why that is dangerous, for the legitimacy of the institution – and Americans’ willingness to abide by its rulings.

Justice Jackson – race, gender, and the politics of Supreme Court picks

When Justice Stephen G. Breyer announced his retirement in January, President Biden said he wouldn’t make an “ideological” Supreme Court pick – but would make good on his campaign promise to nominate a Black woman – something that exemplified the different ways Democrats and Republicans use Supreme Court appointments to advance distinct political agendas.

We ran pieces about the mechanics of the Supreme Court appointment process, analyzed Republican senators’ racially coded language as they questioned Jackson, and explained why more Republican senators did not vote in favor of her nomination, despite broad support from the American public.

And since Jackson’s appointment meant that four women would be serving on the court for the first time in history, John Szmer and colleagues examined why so few women have a chance to argue in front of the Supreme Court.

What else did the Supreme Court do this year?

The Supreme Court was busy this year. TMC ran pieces covering its rulings striking down the vaccine mandate, narrowing the power of the EPA and the administrative state and expanding the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms. Scholars’ research helped us understand the oral arguments challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action in Students for Fair Admission v. Harvard – a ruling that the Supreme Court is expected to hand down in June 2023 – and how their expected ruling banning these policies in colleges and universities might actually affect student bodies.

Other scholars told us that they couldn’t find any religious bias in how the media covered Amy Coney Barrett; analyzed how amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs affect the court’s decisions; and looked at when and how the circuit courts let the public see and hear their oral arguments during the pandemic.

So, yes, 2022 was a historic year for the Supreme Court, and a busy one here for us covering it at The Monkey Cage. Check back with us when we relaunch as we keep examining what this court does in the future.

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