Washington – The Supreme Court convenes Monday to begin its new nine-month term, which is expected to bring another round of divisive decisions on hot-button issues such as affirmative action, voting rights, elections and LGBTQ discrimination, cases that could demonstrate the power of a conservative majority on a six-judge court.

But as the justices prepare to take the court — in front of members of the public for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic — the court is also facing a historically low level of public trust, which plummeted before and after a June ruling overturning the constitutional right to abortion.

The Supreme Court’s last term offered no shortage of blockbuster rulings expanding gun rights, reversal of Roe v. Wade, limiting the powers of the Environmental Protection Agency to combat climate change and protecting religious freedomand judges hardly shy away from political cases.

A challenge is already on the dock admissions policies based on race in electoral universities – a dispute the fight against free speech rights anti-discrimination LGBTQ website designer and an the election dispute which may limit the power of state courts to review election rules enacted by state legislatures under state constitutions.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a sleepy term for the Supreme Court,” Alison Orr Larsen, a professor at William & Mary School of Law, told CBS News. “The cases they’ve taken are ideologically charged, and there are likely to be even more divisive questions for them to answer about the Second Amendment and anti-abortion, all after their big decisions last term. So far, there is no evidence that this court is going to hit the brakes anytime soon on important divisive issues.”

The justices were also asked to weigh in on arguments over the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ ban on firearms, a Florida law that regulates how social media companies moderate their content, and whether unborn children are entitled to constitutional protections. The cases the court decides not to hear may indicate whether conservative justices want to continue the rapid pace of changing the law.

“One question is going to be whether there’s any sense on the court that they need to turn the temperature down a little bit after Dobbs, and that could be either in the decisions they make or the things they can do,” Sean Marotta said , Court of Appeal attorney Hogan Lovells. “Restraint may not be in the cases they decide, but in the cases they choose not to decide.”

Positive action

Among the court battles that were most closely followed – a a couple of cases challenging the racial admissions policies of Harvard College, a private school, and the University of North Carolina, a public institution, to be debated on October 31.

Students for Fair Admissions, which filed the lawsuit, claims the schools are violating the 14th Amendment and federal law through their admissions programs, which were used to increase diversity among the university’s student body.

Students for Fair Admissions is asking the justices to overturn their 2003 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld the University of Michigan’s law school’s use of race as a factor in student admissions.

Court watchers expect the Supreme Court to overturn its nearly 20-year-old ruling, especially since the court’s makeup has changed since the 2016 decision in Fisher v. University of Texas, the last time the court said that race-based admissions programs from are legal.

“Chief Justice Roberts, his vote is not really questioning affirmative action based on race. In most cases, he was skeptical of affirmative action based on race, and there are no surprises here,” Larsen said. “I can’t count to five in any case to keep Grater or Fischer. I think these cases will be overturned.”

The court joined the two cases for oral arguments in January, but separated them in July after Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson was convicted confirmed, as she recused herself from a controversy involving Harvard over her role on the school’s Board of Overseers. Jackson may be involved in the University of North Carolina case.

Devon Westhill, president and general counsel of the Equal Opportunity Center, said he thought it was important that Jackson, the first black woman to take the court, expressed her views on racial consciousness in American life.

“I really think that as we continue to think about the legality of the trial, it would be a real black mark on the court if the first black woman just didn’t have the opportunity to voice her opinion on important racial issues like affirmative action,” said he during a court term preview hosted by the Federalist Society.

The collision of free speech and LGBTQ rights

The justices will also consider whether anti-discrimination laws protecting LGBTQ people can require a business owner to express a message they do not wish to convey under the First Amendment.

The case, which involves a Colorado website designer, comes four years after judges heard a similar dispute involving a Colorado baker who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. But in their 2018 decision, the justices ignored key free speech issues.

“These big questions about the First Amendment are now back on trial, but before a new trial,” Amanda Shanor, an assistant professor of constitutional law at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said during a Federalist Society preview.

Case 303 Creative v. Elenis “affects both speech protection and economic life, especially for business owners, but also the extent to which businesses can refuse to serve customers,” she said.

The website designer involved in the dispute, Lori Smith, does not want to design websites for same-sex weddings, and she asked a Colorado federal court not to apply the state’s anti-discrimination law to her. The lower courts, however, sided with the state.

While Shenard said the Supreme Court ruling in Smith’s favor makes “good money,” the details of the ruling will be key.

“How this happens, or when it happens, could have huge implications for the rights of expression and association in other economic settings and for other anti-discrimination laws more broadly,” she said. “And part of the question is, how are you going to allow that exception?”

Elections and voting rights

In the first week of oral arguments, the court will be listen to the suffrage debate involving a Republican-drawn Alabama congressional map that a lower court ruled violated a 1965 law because it was the only district where black voters make up a majority of the district.

Then in the coming weeks, he will take up a North Carolina election law dispute involving the state court-created congressional map for the 2022 midterm elections. That legal battle invokes the so-called independent state legislature theory, which states that under the U.S. Constitution, only the state legislature has the power to set federal election rules, displacing oversight from state courts to make sure they conform to state constitutions.

A version of the theory was proposed by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist in his concurring opinion in Bush v. Gore in 2000, and by four current justices—Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch, and Brett Cavanagh— wrote or joined the opinions in March, which said the Supreme Court would soon have to consider the power of state courts to review election rules enacted by state legislatures.

The case has attracted the attention of a wide range of constituencies, including the Conference of Chief Justices, an organization made up of the nation’s top judicial officials.

In a member of the court brief filed in support of neither side, the group told the Supreme Court that the U.S. Constitution “does not derogate from the power of state courts to decide what a state election law is, including whether it is consistent with state law and the U.S. Constitution.”

A new term begins with a new justice

Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson

AP Photo/Manuel Balse Seneta

In addition to starting their new term, the judges also welcome a new member from Jackson’s additionwho replaced Justice Stephen Breyer, who is now retired.

Jackson’s appointment is historic as she is the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and she also brings the Supreme Court closer to gender parity.

While she doesn’t change the ideological makeup of the court — Republican-appointed judges still hold six of the nine seats — she offers a fresh perspective, given that she spent eight years as a federal judge in Washington. .

“That kind of perspective can be really valuable — the kinds of tests the court is going to announce, or the degree of deference it gives to questions of fact, or the willingness to leave questions open, those are more nuanced issues, but I suspect she’s going to care a lot about them,” Larsen said. “In a conference room, it can make a difference when a colleague says, ‘I have real-world experience in a trial court, and here are the practical implications of what you’re going to decide.’

Marotta, meanwhile, noted that as the court’s makeup changed and its ideological leanings shifted to the right, spurred by former President Donald Trump’s appointment of three members, the debate about its center shifted from a swing justice to a moderate.

“Incrementalists do not have the majority they once had. In a lot of ways, they look up to Judges Kavanagh and Barrett because they decide how much to give them for gas,” he said. “In some cases they’re willing to be more incremental and more cautious, and in others they’re more for change.”