Monday’s abortion decision by the Supreme Court, on the last day of its term, didn’t just strike down a restrictive Texas law: It may also signal that America has passed the high-water mark in the long rise of conservatism on the nation’s highest court.
The abortion ruling, along with the court’s decision upholding college affirmative action last week, suggests an end to the court’s steady movement to the right on a broad range of issues since the appointments of Justice Antonin Scalia in 1986 and Justice Clarence Thomas in 1991. Though Republican politicians have railed against liberal and activist judges for years, conservatives have enjoyed great success in advancing their principles through the court system for most of the past half-century. The Supreme Court has had a consistent majority of Republican-appointed justices since 1970, and in recent decades it has moved the law rightward on private property, church and state, federal power, firearms regulation, criminal procedure and administrative governance. With a few notable exceptions, such as gay rights, liberal lawyers have grown accustomed to playing defense, trying to parry conservative attempts to push the law yet further in conservative directions.
But it now seems more likely than ever that conservatives will fall short of some of their most important goals in the judicial realm—and we may have reached a turning point in the history of the institution.