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The Supreme Court Delivers

The Supreme Court helps make America a more perfect union.

Photo by Adam Michael Szuscik / Unsplash

The Supreme Court recently concluded one of the most consequential terms since the turn of the century, with a number of high-profile rulings set to leave a lasting impact on the United States for generations to come.

The cases ranged from how we ought to understand the equal protection clause, challenges to executive overreach, and protections for free speech and First Amendment rights.

Affirmative Action

On Thursday, June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a 6-3 ruling in the case of Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. V. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The decision held that the admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina “violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”

The opinion, delivered by Chief Justice John Roberts, struck down race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions. To understand the intent and effect of this decision, look no further than the opinion’s syllabus, which states, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it.”

At its core, this decision is predicated on the idea that it is not only morally wrong but also illegal under the U.S. Constitution to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin. Individuals ought to be judged by the fruits of their labor and the content of their character, not their physical attributes or ancestry.

Unfortunately, when it comes to college admissions, this has not been the case for a long time. The cases in question rested on empirical evidence showing that Asian Americans were being regularly and massively discriminated against in admissions decisions at Harvard and UNC. Even the most ardent defenders of affirmative action do not seriously dispute that this was happening.

Chief Justice Roberts’ decision remedies this injustice and bars colleges from practicing such blatant discrimination in the future. Additionally, while further cases may be necessary to clarify the full extent of the decision, the ruling makes clear that universities cannot start practicing affirmative action through alternative means. The ruling states, “universities may not simply establish through application essays or other means the regime we hold unlawful today…what cannot be done directly cannot be done indirectly.”

Justice Clarence Thomas, who joined the majority’s decision in the case, wrote a separate concurring opinion where he offers “an originalist defense of the colorblind Constitution,” clarifies “that all forms of discrimination based on race—including so-called affirmative action—are prohibited under the Constitution,” and emphasizes “the pernicious effects of all such discrimination.”

Thanks to this ruling, colleges will be forced to judge future applicants on the basis of their individual applications. The decision is decades overdue, but it nonetheless marks a massive step forward toward making America a land of opportunity for all.

Student Loans

While the ruling in the affirmative action case signifies a profound win for equality and justice, not every case the court considered this term dealt with such lofty ideals. In Biden v Nebraska, the Supreme Court struck down President Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan, finding that ““[t]he basic and consequential tradeoffs” inherent in a mass debt cancellation program “are ones that Congress would likely have intended for itself.”” Like the ruling in Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. V. President and Fellows of Harvard College, this decision was authored by Chief Justice Roberts and was decided by a 6-3 vote.

Everyone knew that Biden’s scheme was illegal. In 2021, Nancy Pelosi said, “The president can’t do it. That’s not even a discussion.” The Court also cites a separate instance where then-Speaker Pelosi said, “People think that the President of the United States has the power for debt forgiveness. He does not. He can postpone. He can delay. But he does not have that power. That has to be an act of Congress.”

In January 2021, the Department of Education’s General Counsel wrote, “The Secretary does not have statutory authority to provide blanket or mass cancellation, compromise, discharge, or forgiveness of student loan principal balances.”

Even Biden himself has previously expressed skepticism about the president’s ability to forgive student loan debt, bizarrely arguing that he had the authority to waive $10,000 in debt per borrower but simultaneously suggesting that $50,000 would not be legal.

Despite the policy’s blatant violation of separation of powers, the White House tried to ram it through on the theory that no one could establish standing to challenge the program.

In Biden v Nebraska, the court held that the state of Missouri did have standing to challenge the program because MOHELA, a nonprofit government corporation that services the student loan market, was financially harmed by Biden’s actions. Once the court found that Missouri did have standing to challenge the proposal, it was then able to strike Biden’s policy down as unconstitutional.

The basic reason the program was unconstitutional is that it would have cost over $400 billion, but Congress never authorized the executive branch to spend that money. The ruling reasserts what Article 1 of the US Constitution makes clear: that only Congress can raise and spend money.

If Congress had passed the student loan forgiveness plan, there would have been nothing to challenge. And as the decision notes, if Congress had wanted to cancel student loan debt, they had ample opportunities to do so, considering there were more than 80 bills filed for this purpose in the 116th Congress alone. Lawmakers did not do this, however, because it is a terrible idea for a variety of reasons.

The court’s decision is a win for the Constitution, the rule of law, and common sense. Thanks to the court, the American people can be confident that the constitutional system of separation of powers remains intact.

Compelled Speech

Article 1 and the 14th Amendment were not the only elements of the Constitution to be reaffirmed this term. In 303 Creative v. Elenis, the court ruled that “The First Amendment prohibits Colorado from forcing a website designer to create expressive designs speaking messages with which the designer disagrees.”

According to the ruling, which was decided by a 6-3 vote and delivered by Justice Neil Gorsuch, the First Amendment dictates that “the government may not compel a person to speak its own preferred messages.” At its core, the ruling confirms that the government cannot compel speech, a protection as fundamental to individual liberty as the right to say whatever one wants.

The case was brought by Lorie Smith, the owner of 303 Creative LLC. Looking to grow her business, Smith wished to start designing websites for wedding ceremonies, but she personally objected to same-sex marriage on religious grounds. She did not want to design websites for such weddings, and in order to be upfront about her stance, Smith posted a message stating this on her business’s website.

This put her into conflict with the Colorado AntiDiscrimination Act (CADA). According to Oyez, CADA “prohibits businesses that are open to the public from discriminating on the basis of numerous characteristics, including sexual orientation. The law defines discrimination not only as refusing to provide goods or services, but also publishing any communication that says or implies that an individual’s patronage is unwelcome because of a protected characteristic.”

Although no action had been taken against Smith, she proactively sued Colorado on the grounds that CADA violated her constitutional rights. Drawing on previous rulings, including Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette and Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, Inc., among others, the court ruled that, “the First Amendment protects an individual’s right to speak his mind regardless of whether the government considers his speech sensible and well intentioned or deeply “misguided.””

It is important to note that this case is about protecting Americans’ First Amendment rights. It does not pass judgement on whether Smith’s objections to gay marriage are reasonable, nor does it open the door to broader discrimination against LGBTQ+ Americans. As Justice Gorsuch wrote, “The First Amendment’s protections belong to all, not just to speakers whose motives the government finds worthy…abiding the Constitution’s commitment to the freedom of speech means all will encounter ideas that are “misguided, or even hurtful.” Consistent with the First Amendment, the Nation’s answer is tolerance, not coercion.”

Tolerance, not coercion, indeed.

A More Perfect Union

These are just a few of the most prominent decisions handed down by the court this term. Many of the other rulings were not as sensational and received less media attention as a result, but they will doubtlessly alter the course of American jurisprudence for decades to come. But after this slate of rulings, all Americans can be confident that the Supreme Court remains committed to the Constitution and upholding the principles of liberty, limited government, and separation of powers on which this great country was founded.


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