Jeff Tollefson in Nature:
In late June, the US Supreme Court issued a trio of landmark decisions that repealed the right to abortion, loosened gun restrictions and curtailed climate regulations. Although the decisions differed in rationale, they share a distinct trait: all three dismissed substantial evidence about how the court’s rulings would affect public health and safety. It is a troubling trend that many scientists fear could undermine the role of scientific evidence in shaping public policy. Now, as the court prepares to consider a landmark case on electoral policies, many worry about the future of American democracy itself.
Often regarded as the most powerful court in the free world, the Supreme Court sits in judgment of laws enacted by Congress and state legislatures, as well as constitutional disputes at any level of government. Its unusual power, in comparison to high courts in other democracies, derives in part from its small size and the fact that its nine justices are appointed for life, says Nancy Gertner, a retired federal judge who teaches at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This makes appointments both highly consequential and highly political. Partisan divisions in the US government make passing new laws difficult and adopting constitutional amendments next to impossible, meaning that the court’s word on crucial issues — such as the right to an abortion — can stand as the law of the land for a generation or more.