What to watch for on the last day of the US Supreme Court’s current term

What will they decide on their last day?
What will they decide on their last day?
Image: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
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The US Supreme Court is holding the last session of its current term today (June 26)—and it is the final chance the justices will have to settle several weighty issues before the court’s annual summer recess.

There are still important questions pending, including whether US President Donald Trump should be allowed to implement his ban on travelers from several majority-Muslim countries.

Here are a few things the justices could cross off their list or punt to their next session, which starts in October.

Travel ban ruling

Trump’s executive order barring travel from six Middle Eastern and African countries has been ensnarled in courts practically since he signed it. The Supreme Court could put an end to Trump’s legal battles—or stretch them for longer. Two federal circuit courts of appeals have blocked Trump’s ban, saying that the president does not have authority to implement it. The government’s lawyers have appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing the goal is to keep Americans safe.

If the justices refuse to review the case, the lower courts’ decisions would stand and the Trump administration would be back at square one in trying to impose the ban that Trump promised during his presidential campaign.

The court could, instead, side with Trump by finding the lower courts were wrong. In that case, Trump has ordered that the ban be implemented within 72 hours.

The justices could also postpone weighing in, either by calling for a special session over the summer, or leaving the decision for the fall. By that time, however, their opinion might be moot. Trump’s executive order called for a 90-day ban in order to give the US Department of Homeland Security time to review its vetting policies. Those 90 days will have passed by the time the court reconvenes in October, when the administration should have had the opportunity to determine whether it needs to change its policies. Under this rationale, the ban would no longer be needed.

Neil Gorsuch’s role

If the court settles the ban or other pending issues on Thursday, Americans will get valuable insight into the positions of the most recent justice to join the bench.

Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s appointee, has only been in the court for a couple of months, but he’ll be weighing in on the first case about giving resources to churches to be heard in the Supreme Court in more than a decade. Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia v. Comer deals with questions about whether states can exclude religious institutions from aid programs—and the outcome could have big implications for school voucher programs.

Before he joined the Supreme Court, Gorsuch’s decisions as an appellate judge in other religion-related cases suggested he’s sympathetic to religious-freedom claims. Experts will be closely watching what the new justice does.

Justice Kennedy retiring

Justice Anthony Kennedy hasn’t said when he’s retiring, or whether he might announce his decision on the last day of the court’s current term, but rumors that the soon to be 81-year-old judge is stepping down are swirling.

Media reports have cited Kennedy’s former clerks saying that their former boss is thinking about leaving the bench soon. A reunion of Kennedy clerks that was scheduled for next year was instead held last weekend, fueling the speculation.

Kennedy, who has served in the court since 1988, has become a key swing vote in the otherwise largely evenly divided court. Though he leans conservative, he’s sided with liberals in some major cases, including Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized gay marriage in the US in 2015.

His retirement would give Trump the rare opportunity to pick a second Supreme Court justice just a few months into his first term as president. If that happens, Trump will have the a chance to reshape the political configuration of America’s highest court for years to come.

Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway refused to address the rumors, but said the president is prepared if they turn out to be true.

“I will never reveal a conversation between a sitting justice and the president or the White House, but we’re paying very close attention to these last bit of decisions,” she said on ABC’s This Week.