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Abortion, Guns, Religion Top Big US Supreme Court Term

The future of abortion rights is in the hands of a conservative Supreme Court that is beginning a new term Monday that also includes major cases on gun rights and religion. 

The court’s credibility with the public also could be on the line, especially if a divided court were to overrule the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that established a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide. 

The justices are returning to the courtroom after an 18-month absence caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the possible retirement of liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 83, also looms. 

It’s the first full term with the court in its current alignment.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the last of former President Donald Trump’s three high-court appointees, is part of a six-justice conservative majority. Barrett was nominated and confirmed last year amid the pandemic, little more than a month after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Trump and Republicans who controlled the Senate moved quickly to fill the seat shortly before the 2020 presidential election, bringing about a dramatic change in the court’s lineup that has set the stage for a potentially law-changing term on several high-profile issues. 

With abortion, guns and religion already on the agenda, and a challenge to affirmative action waiting in the wings, the court will answer a key question over the next year, said University of Chicago law professor David Strauss. “Is this the term in which the culture wars return to the Supreme Court in a big way?” Strauss said. 

Mississippi abortion case

No issue is bigger than abortion.

The justices will hear arguments December 1 in Mississippi’s bid to enforce a ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts blocked the law because it is inconsistent with high-court rulings that allow states to regulate but not prohibit abortion before viability, the point around 24 weeks of pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb. 

Mississippi is taking what conservative commentator Carrie Severino called a “rip-the-Band-Aid-off” approach to the case by asking the court to abandon its support of abortion rights that was laid out in Roe and the 1992 case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. 

Mississippi is among 12 states with so-called trigger laws that would take effect if Roe is overturned and ban abortion entirely. 

By a 5-4 vote in early September, the court already has allowed a ban on most abortions to take effect in Texas, though no court has yet ruled on the substance of the law. 

But that vote and the Mississippi case highlight the potential risk to the court’s reputation, said David Cole, the American Civil Liberties Union’s legal director. The arguments advanced by Mississippi were considered and rejected by the Supreme Court in 1992, Cole said. 

“The only difference between then and now is the identity of the justices,” he said. 

Jeff Wall, a top Justice Department lawyer under Trump, said the court could sharply expand gun rights and end the use of race in college admissions, but only abortion is likely to move public perception of the court. “I still don’t think that’s going to create some groundswell in the public, unless it’s accompanied by some kind of watershed ruling on abortion,” Wall said.

Challenge to New York law

In early November, the court will take up a challenge to New York restrictions on carrying a gun in public, a case that offers the court the chance to expand gun rights under the Second Amendment. Before Barrett joined the court, the justices turned away similar cases, over the dissents of some conservative members of the court. 

Until Barrett came along, some justices who favor gun rights questioned whether Chief Justice John Roberts would provide a fifth, majority-making vote “for a more expansive reading of the Second Amendment,” said George Washington University law professor Robert Cottrol, who said he hoped the court would now broaden gun rights. 

More than 40 states already make it easy to be armed in public, but New York and California, two of the nation’s most populous states, are among the few with tighter regulations. 

The case has gun control advocates worried.

“An expansive Second Amendment ruling by the Supreme Court could restrict or prohibit the sensible solutions that have been shown can end gun violence,” said Jonathan Lowy, vice president and chief counsel at the gun violence prevention group Brady. Lowy included state laws requiring a justification to carry a gun as examples of such “sensible solutions.” 

A case from Maine gives the court another opportunity to weigh religious rights in the area of education. The state excludes religious schools from a tuition program for families who live in towns that don’t have public schools. 

Since even before Ginsburg’s death, the court has favored religion-based discrimination claims and the expectation among legal experts is that parents in Maine who sued to be able to use taxpayer money at religious schools will prevail, though it’s not clear how broadly the court might rule. 

Affirmative action is not yet on the court’s agenda, but it could still get there this term in a lawsuit over Harvard’s use of race in college admissions. Lower courts upheld the school’s policy, but this is another case in which the change in the composition of the court could prove decisive. The court upheld race-conscious admission policies as recently as five years ago but that was before Trump’s three appointments accentuated the court’s conservative tilt. 

Federal death penalty

Among other notable cases, the justices will consider reinstating the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Biden administration is pushing for the capital sentence, even as it has suspended federal executions and President Joe Biden has called for an end to the federal death penalty. 

The court will also weigh two cases involving “state secrets,” the idea that the government can block the release of information it claims would harm national security if disclosed. One case involves a Guantanamo Bay detainee who a lower court said was tortured in CIA custody. The other involves a group of Muslim residents of California who allege the FBI targeted them for surveillance because of their religion. 

Decisions in most of the big cases won’t come before spring because the justices typically spend months drafting and revising majority opinions and dissents. 

Around then, Breyer might signal whether he is planning to retire from a job he has held since 1994. Retirement announcements often come in the spring, to give the president and the Senate enough time to choose and confirm a nominee before the court returns from its summer break and begins hearing cases again in October.

The consequences of Ginsburg’s decision to remain on the court through Barack Obama’s presidency and her death while Trump was in the White House can’t be lost on Breyer, said Tom Goldstein, the founder of the Scotusblog website and a frequent advocate before the court. 

“It’s overwhelmingly likely he’ll retire this term,” Goldstein said. 

The courthouse still is closed to the public, but live audio of the court’s arguments will be available and reporters who regularly cover the court will be in attendance. The tradition-bound court first provided live audio in May 2020, when the court began hearing arguments by telephone during the pandemic. 

Justice Brett Kavanaugh will participate remotely from his home next week during oral arguments after testing positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. The court said Friday that the 54-year-old justice has no symptoms. 

Alaska's Vanishing Salmon Push Yukon River Tribes to the Brink

In a normal year, the smokehouses and drying racks that Alaska Natives use to prepare salmon to tide them through the winter would be heavy with fish meat, the fruits of a summer spent fishing on the Yukon River like generations before them. 

This year, there are no fish. For the first time in memory, both king and chum salmon have dwindled to almost nothing and the state has banned salmon fishing on the Yukon, even the subsistence harvests that Alaska Natives rely on to fill their freezers and pantries for winter. The remote communities that dot the river and live off its bounty — far from road systems and easy, affordable shopping — are desperate and doubling down on moose and caribou hunts in the waning days of fall. 

“Nobody has fish in their freezer right now. Nobody,” said Giovanna Stevens, 38, a member of the Stevens Village tribe who grew up harvesting salmon at her family’s fish camp. “We have to fill that void quickly before winter gets here.” 

Opinions on what led to the catastrophe vary, but those studying it generally agree human-caused climate change is playing a role as the river and the Bering Sea warm, altering the food chain in ways that aren’t yet fully understood. Many believe commercial trawling operations that scoop up wild salmon along with their intended catch, as well as competition from hatchery-raised salmon in the ocean, have compounded global warming’s effects on one of North America’s longest rivers. 

The assumption that salmon that aren’t fished make it back to their native river to lay eggs may no longer hold up because of changes in both the ocean and river environments, said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, who has worked on Yukon River salmon issues for a decade and is the Alaska Venture Fund’s program director for fisheries and communities. 

Looking for ‘smoking gun’

King, or chinook, salmon have been in decline for more than a decade, but chum salmon were more plentiful until last year. This year, summer chum numbers plummeted and numbers of fall chum — which travel farther upriver — are dangerously low. 

“Everyone wants to know, ‘What is the one smoking gun? What is the one thing we can point to and stop?’ ” she said of the collapse. “People are reluctant to point to climate change because there isn’t a clear solution … but it’s probably the biggest factor here.” 

Many Alaska Native communities are outraged they are paying the price for generations of practices beyond their control that have caused climate change — and many feel state and federal authorities aren’t doing enough to bring Indigenous voices to the table. The scarcity has made raw strong emotions about who should have the right to fish in a state that supplies the world with salmon, and it underscores the powerlessness many Alaska Natives feel as traditional resources dwindle. 

The nearly 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) Yukon River starts in British Columbia and drains an area larger than Texas in both Canada and Alaska as it cuts through the lands of Athabascan, Yup’ik and other tribes. 

The crisis is affecting both subsistence fishing in far-flung outposts and fish processing operations that employ tribal members in communities along the lower Yukon and its tributaries. 

“In the tribal villages, our people are livid. They’re extremely angry that we are getting penalized for what others are doing,” said P.J. Simon, chairman and chief of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, a consortium of 42 tribal villages in the Alaska interior. “As Alaska Natives, we have a right to this resource. We have a right to have a say in how things are drawn up and divvied up.” 

More than a half-dozen Alaska Native groups have petitioned for federal aid, and they want the state’s federal delegation to hold a hearing in Alaska on the salmon crisis. The groups also seek federal funding for more collaborative research on the effects that ocean changes are having on returning salmon. 

Citing the warming ocean, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy requested a federal disaster declaration for the salmon fishery this month and has helped coordinate airlifts of about 41,000 kilograms (90,000 pounds) of fish to needy villages. The salmon crisis is one of the governor’s top priorities, said Rex Rock Jr., Dunleavy’s adviser for rural affairs and Alaska Native economic development. 

A vital tradition

That’s done little to appease remote villages that are dependent on salmon to get through winter, when snow paralyzes the landscape and temperatures can dip to minus 29 C (minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit) or lower. 

Families traditionally spend the summer at fish camps using nets and fish wheels to snag adult salmon as they migrate inland from the ocean to the place where they hatched so they can spawn. The salmon is prepared for storage in a variety of ways: dried for jerky, cut into fillets that are frozen, canned in half-pint jars or preserved in wooden barrels with salt. 

Without salmon, communities are under intense pressure to find other protein sources. In the Alaska interior, the nearest road system is often dozens of miles away, and it can take hours by boat, snowmachine or airplane to reach a grocery store.

Store-bought food is prohibitively expensive for many: 3.8 liters (1 gallon) of milk can cost nearly $10, and a pound of steak was recently $34 in Kaltag, an interior village about 528 kilometers (328 air miles) from Fairbanks. A surge in COVID-19 cases that has disproportionately hit Alaska Natives has also made many hesitant to venture far from home. 

Instead, villages sent out extra hunting parties during the fall moose season and are looking to the upcoming caribou season to meet their needs. Those who can’t hunt themselves rely on others to share their meat. 

“We have to watch our people because there will be some who will have no food about midyear,” said Christina Semaken, 63, a grandmother who lives in Kaltag, an Alaska interior town of fewer than 100 people. “We can’t afford to buy that beef or chicken.” 

Semaken hopes to fish next year, but whether the salmon will come back remains unknown. 

Tribal advocates want more genetic testing on salmon harvested from fishing grounds in Alaska waters to make sure that commercial fisheries aren’t intercepting wild Yukon River salmon. They also want more fish-tracking sonar on the river to ensure an accurate count of the salmon that escape harvest and make it back to the river’s Canadian headwaters.

Loss of sea ice

Yet changes in the ocean itself might ultimately determine the salmon’s fate.

The Bering Sea, where the river meets the ocean, has had unprecedented ice loss in recent years, and its water temperatures are rising. Those shifts are throwing off the timing of the plankton bloom and the distribution of small invertebrates that the fish eat, creating potential chaos in the food chain that’s still being studied, said Kate Howard, a fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Researchers have also documented warming temperatures in the river that are unhealthy for salmon, she said. 

Because salmon spend time in both rivers and the ocean during their unique life cycle, it’s hard to pin down exactly where these rapid environmental changes are most affecting them, but it’s increasingly clear that overfishing is not the only culprit, Howard said. 

“When you dig into all the available data for Yukon River salmon,” she said, “it’s hard to explain it all unless you consider climate change.” 

Alaska Natives, meanwhile, are left scrambling to fill a hole in their diet — and in centuries of tradition built around salmon. 

On a recent fall day, a small hunting party zoomed along the Yukon River by motorboat, scanning the shoreline for signs of moose. After three days, the group had killed two moose, enough to provide meat for seven families, or about 50 people, for roughly a month in their small community of Stevens Village. 

At the end of a long day, they butchered the animals as the Northern Lights blazed a vibrant green across the sky, their headlamps piercing the inky darkness. 

The makeshift camp, miles from any road, would normally host several dozen families harvesting salmon, sharing meals and teaching children how to fish. On this day, it was eerily quiet. 

“I don’t really think that there is any kind of bell out there that you can ring loud enough to try to explain that type of connection,” said Ben Stevens, whose ancestors founded Stevens Village. “Salmon, to us, is life. Where can you go beyond that?” 

No Season 2 for 'Mr. Corman' on Apple TV+

Actor, writer and producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt announced on Twitter that Apple TV+ didn’t renew his dramedy, “Mr. Corman,” for a second season.