Curtain comes up on new term for conservative US Supreme Court

By John Kruzel

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court began its new term on Monday with arguments in a criminal sentencing case, setting out on a nine-month legal journey that will test how far its 6-3 conservative majority is willing to steer American law in a rightward direction.

The court also turned away a series of appeals in cases involving lawyers who pursued unsuccessful litigation to try to overturn former President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss, a long-shot candidate’s bid to disqualify Trump from the 2024 election and videos secretly recorded by anti-abortion activists.

Among the cases the court previously agreed to hear this term are major ones involving gun rights, the power of federal agencies, social media regulation, OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy settlement, the legality of Republican-drawn electoral districts and more.

The conservative justices have shown assertiveness in major rulings in the past two years. The court has ended its recognition of a constitutional right to abortion, expanded gun rights, restricted federal agency powers, rejected affirmative action in college admissions and broadened religious rights.

Abortion could be front and center again for the justices this term as President Joe Biden’s administration has asked them to hear its appeal of a lower court’s ruling that would restrict the availability of the abortion pill mifepristone.

Justice Clarence Thomas asked the first question during the opening argument of the new term – in a case from Iowa involving a bid by inmate Mark Pulsifer to receive a lighter sentence under a bipartisan 2018 law signed by Republican then-President Donald Trump that aimed to reduce the sentences for certain non-violent drug offenders.

Pulsifer, who is serving a 13-1/2 year prison sentence after pleading guilty to selling methamphetamine, has argued that he is eligible for resentencing under the law, called the First Step Act. At issue is how to interpret the law’s eligibility criteria in order to determine if Pulsifer’s prior 2013 felony drug conviction disqualifies him from a sentence reduction, a ruling with stakes for thousands of other inmates.

In declining to hear a series of appeals on a range of subjects, the court turned away one by John Eastman, a conservative lawyer indicted in August over his role in efforts to overturn Trump’s 2020 loss, in a case involving 10 emails that he had sought to shield from congressional investigators.

Thomas did not participate in considering the Eastman case, the court’s brief order showed, and did not explain his recusal. The Washington Post last year reported that congressional investigators had obtained emails between Eastman, who once served as a law clerk for Thomas, and the justice’s wife, conservative activist Virginia “Ginni” Thomas.

The justices also declined to hear an appeal by two lawyers – Ernest Walker and Gary Fielder – contesting a $187,000 financial sanction imposed on them by a judge who found they had made recklessness and frivolous claims in litigation they brought in Colorado seeking to overturn Trump’s loss.

The election-related suits were based on Trump’s false claims that the 2020 contest was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

The justices turned away a case involving whether Trump should be disqualified from the 2024 election under a constitutional provision barring anyone who “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding public office. John Anthony Castro, a Texas tax consultant who has mounted a long-shot bid for the Republican presidential nomination, cited Trump’s actions relating to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by the then-president’s supporters as insurrection.

The court also declined to hear a bid by anti-abortion activist David Daleiden and his group, the Center for Medical Progress, to throw out more than $2 million in damages they were ordered to pay Planned Parenthood after secretly recording video of abortion providers in a scheme to try to show the illicit sale of aborted fetal tissue for profit.

On gun rights, the justices are poised this term to decide whether a 1994 federal law that bars people under domestic violence restraining orders from possessing firearms violates the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment “right to keep and bear arms.”

On Tuesday, the justices are due to hear the first of at least three cases posing legal challenges to what conservative critics often refer to as the “administrative state,” the federal bureaucracy whose technical expertise shapes the many rules and regulations affecting businesses and individuals.

Tuesday’s arguments involve a constitutional challenge to the funding structure of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the top U.S. consumer finance watchdog agency.

Coinciding with the beginning of the new term, the U.S. Postal Service on Monday is set to unveil a postage stamp featuring the late liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who died in 2020. Trump appointed Amy Coney Barrett to replace Ginsburg, creating the current conservative super majority.

(Reporting by John Kruzel; Editing by Will Dunham)