The justices are taking the bench at a fraught time. Polls show that public confidence in the court is at an all-time low, and the justices find themselves at the center of the political spotlight after a 5-4 court allowed a Texas six-week abortion ban to take effect last month, rendering Roe v. Wade a dead letter, for now, in the country’s second largest state.
While the cases argued Monday were not major ones, it was a noteworthy first day for the justices. Here are some highlights from day 1:
Justice Clarence Thomas — who has rarely posed questions in the courtroom for years — asked the first question in both argued cases. The move signals that Thomas has in many ways emerged as the court’s conservative leader.
In the areas of abortion and gun rights, he has long maintained that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that the court was treating the Second Amendment as a disfavored right. Now, over the next months, the new conservative court will hear disputes in both areas with Thomas likely playing a strong role in shaping draft opinions that fly between chambers.
Thomas is now the longest serving member, and when the chief justice is in the minority, it is Thomas, because of his seniority, who gets the all-important power to assign the court opinion.
Barrett takes her seat
Justice Amy Coney Barrett has been on the court hearing arguments for almost a year, but Monday marked the first time she did so from her actual seat.
On the bench, she sits on the far left of Chief Justice John Roberts, but ironically, she has shored up the court’s right wing. The conservatives — Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh — no longer need Roberts as a fifth vote in hot-button disputes such as abortion and the Second Amendment. They have Barrett.
Kavanaugh dials in
Kavanaugh was diagnosed with Covid-19 last week, so he participated from home, asking his questions from a dedicated phone line.
It is so far unclear how long Kavanaugh, who is fully vaccinated, will self-isolate.
Sotomayor masks up
Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only one wearing a mask on the bench, likely because she suffers from a preexisting condition of diabetes.
In the audience was retired Justice Anthony Kennedy, wearing a mask in the front row and sitting next to the chief justice’s wife, Jane. Joanna Breyer, the wife of Justice Stephen Breyer, was also in the audience sitting in a row by herself.
Eyes on Breyer
This term might mark Stephen Breyer’s grand finale, as he could announce his retirement by July.
The court, after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg last year, reorganized seating according to seniority. This means Breyer now sits next to the chief justice. The two smiled and whispered together during arguments — at one point seeming to discuss the court’s new format for asking questions. It was designed to allow the justices to ask their questions uninterrupted and to give advocates more time to speak.