The Supreme Court began its term nine months ago with Merrick Garland nominated to the bench, Hillary Clinton favored to be the next president, and the court poised to be controlled by Democratic appointees for the first time in 50 years.
Things looked very different when the justices wrapped up their work this week. The court's final decisions and orders were almost emphatic declarations, if there had been any doubt, that this is once again a conservative-leaning court that may only move more to the right in the years to come. The justices gave President Donald Trump the go-ahead to start enforcing at least part of his travel ban, showed that the wall between church and state is perhaps not as high as it once was and invigorated a baker's religion-based refusal to create a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.
"Liberals were certainly looking forward to a Clinton presidency that would alter the direction of the court. This was not an outcome we predicted," said Nan Aron, president of the liberal Alliance for Justice. The first casualty of Trump's election was Garland, the appellate judge whom President Barack Obama nominated to the high court. Instead of Garland on the far right of the bench where the newest justice sits, there was Justice Neil Gorsuch.
The placement also meshed with his votes. The Trump nominee who joined the court in April, Gorsuch staked out the most conservative position in a number of closely watched cases, including the one on the travel ban. The 49-year-old Coloradan restored the court's conservative tilt, nearly 14 months after Justice Antonin Scalia's death left the remaining eight justices divided between four liberal-leaning Democratic appointees and four conservative-leaning Republican appointees.
Trump also could bring seismic change to the court if any of the three oldest justices — 84-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 80-year-old Anthony Kennedy or 78-year-old Stephen Breyer — steps down in the next few years. The youngest justice was unusually active both as a questioner during arguments and in his writing. Gorsuch wrote separately from the court's majority opinion seven times in less than three months, the same number of such opinions Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her first two years on the court, University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck noted on Twitter.