US Supreme Court kicks off new term amid drama

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The United States (US) Supreme Court returns to work on Monday for the first time since liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, opening its new term as Senate Republicans seek to quickly confirm President Donald Trump’s conservative nominee to replace her.

With eight justices rather than the usual nine, the court is set to hear two arguments on Monday, starting a term that runs through next June and includes several major cases including one that will decide the fate of the Obamacare healthcare law. Its last term ended in July.

At least at the outset of the term, the cases are being argued as they were at the end of the last term by teleconference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Ginsburg died on September 18 at age 87. Trump on September 26 nominated federal appeals court judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace her and asked the Republican-led Senate to confirm her by the November 3 US election. If confirmed, Barrett would give the court a 6-3 conservative majority.

The first case of the new term centers on a system used by the state of Delaware that requires some of its courts to be ideologically balanced. The justices are hearing the state’s appeal defending its law, which requires that no more than half of the judges on certain benches can be affiliated with one political party.

The second case is a dispute between Texas and New Mexico over rights to the waters of the Pecos River that runs through both states.

On Wednesday, the justices weigh a multibillion-dollar software copyright dispute between Alphabet Inc’s Google and Oracle Corp. The case involves Oracle’s accusation that Google infringed its software copyrights to build the Android operating system used in smartphones.

Two big cases are scheduled for November

On November 10, a week after Election Day, the court is due to hear arguments in a case in which a group of Democratic-led states including California and New York are striving to preserve the 2010 Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. Republican-led states and Trump’s administration are waging a court battle to strike down Obamacare.

Obamacare has helped roughly 20 million Americans obtain medical insurance either through government programs or through policies from private insurers made available in Obamacare marketplaces. It also bars insurers from refusing to cover people with pre-existing medical conditions. Republican opponents have called the law an unwarranted intervention by government in health insurance markets.

The Supreme Court previously upheld it 5-4 in a 2012 ruling in which conservative Chief Justice Roberts cast the crucial vote. It rejected another challenge 6-3 in 2015. Ginsburg was in the majority both times. Barrett has criticized both rulings.

The court hears another major case on November 4 concerning the scope of religious-rights exemptions to certain federal laws. The dispute arose from Philadelphia’s decision to bar a local Roman Catholic entity from participating in the Democratic-governed city’s foster-care program because the organization prohibits same-sex couples from serving as foster parents.

The justices already have tackled multiple election-related emergency requests this year, some involving rules changes prompted by the pandemic. More are likely. The conservative majority has sided with state officials opposed to courts imposing changes to election procedures to make it easier to vote during the pandemic.

Trump has said he wants Barrett to be confirmed before Election Day so she could cast a decisive vote in any election-related dispute, potentially in his favor. He has said he expects the Supreme Court to decide the outcome of the election, though it has done so only once – the disputed 2000 contest ultimately awarded to Republican George W Bush.