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Thomas spoke, Roberts ruled in unusual Supreme Court term

WASHINGTON (AP) — Justice Clarence Thomas spoke and Chief Justice John Roberts ruled.

The Supreme Court’s most unusual term featured victories for immigrants, abortion rights, LGBTQ workers and religious freedoms. The usually quiet Thomas’ baritone was heard by the whole world when the coronavirus outbreak upended the court’s traditional way of doing business. When the biggest decisions were handed down, the chief justice was almost always in the majority and dictated the reach of the court’s most controversial cases, whether they were won by the left or the right.

The decisions in some of the biggest cases came with majorities of six or seven justices, a blurring of the stark 5-4 divide between conservatives and liberals on the court that Roberts and his colleagues have worried would cast them as mere politicians in black robes.

“The outcomes attest to the justices’ understanding that their legitimacy rests upon not deciding cases on the deeply partisan lines that everybody else seems to use in society,” said David Cole, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The rulings may make it difficult for President Donald Trump to claim complete success to his base over his 2016 promise to swing the court solidly to the right as he campaigns for reelection under a worsening pandemic, historic unemployment and mass protests over racial inequality.

Still it may give him the opportunity to ask voters for even more than the 200 Trump-appointed judges on federal courts, including Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.

“Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?” he tweeted after the court ruled against him in a major immigration case. What the court needs, he said, is more conservative justices: “Vote Trump 2020!”

Roberts and Gorsuch, who wrote the opinion that said firing someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is illegal, were part of majorities that otherwise included liberal justices. And some of the liberal justices joined with conservatives in a defeat for environmental interests and in two religious liberty cases, including one that prohibits some employees of religious schools from suing over job discrimination.

“The court really is doing this delicate dance, giving progressives some real victories,” said Adam White, a law professor at George Mason University’s law school, citing the LGBTQ case. At the same time, he said, the court is moving forward on some of the religious liberty cases. “It’s fascinating to watch those two things move on parallel tracks.”

When the court in its last opinions of the term Thursday rejected Trump’s claims of immunity from congressional and criminal investigations, while also making it all but certain that Trump’s financial records won’t become public before the November election, a broad coalition of justices that included Kavanaugh and Gorsuch joined in the majority.

No one proved more influential in negotiating a term crammed with controversial cases than Roberts, the 65-year-old chief justice who has led the court for nearly 15 years. He wrote the court’s opinion preserving protections for hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. Roberts also had both majority opinions in the cases about Trump’s financial records.

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