High court keeping a lower profile

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court began its term with the tumultuous confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, followed by a studied avoidance of drama on the high court bench — especially anything that would divide the five conservatives and four liberals.

The justices have been unusually solicitous of each other in the courtroom since Kavanaugh’s confirmation, and several have voiced concern that the public perceives the court as merely a political institution. Chief Justice John Roberts seems determined to lead the one Washington institution that stays above the political fray. Even Roberts’ rebuke of President Donald Trump, after the president criticized a federal judge, was in defense of an independent, apolitical judiciary.

The next few weeks will test whether the calm can last.

When they gather in private next Friday to consider new cases for arguments in April and into next term, the justices will confront a raft of high-profile appeals.

Abortion restrictions, workplace discrimination against LGBT people and partisan gerrymandering are on the agenda. Close behind are appeals from the Trump administration seeking to have the court allow it to end an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation and to put in place restrictive rules for transgender troops.

There already are signs the conservative justices, apart from Roberts, are willing to take on controversial cases.

In recent weeks, three conservative justices accused the court of ducking its job of deciding important cases, especially when lower courts have disagreed on the outcome. Their criticism, written by Justice Clarence Thomas and joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, came after a recent decision to avoid a case involving funding for Planned Parenthood.

Then, on the Friday before Christmas, the court divided 5-4 in refusing to allow the Trump administration to enforce new restrictions on asylum seekers. Roberts joined the four liberals. The three conservatives who were displeased by the Planned Parenthood case outcome again noted their disagreement, this time joined by Kavanaugh.

The two votes can’t be used to draw any firm conclusions about what may be happening behind closed doors at the court, as the cases arrived in different circumstances. In the Planned Parenthood case, the justices were considering whether to grant full review, a process that takes only four votes. The asylum case was an emergency appeal from the administration. At least five of the nine justices would have had to vote in the administration’s favor.

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