WASHINGTON - The future of abortion rights is in the hands of a conservative Supreme Court that is beginning a new term Monday that also includes major cases on gun rights and religion.
The court's credibility with the public also could be on the line, especially if a divided court were to overrule the landmark Roe v. Wade decision from 1973 that established a woman’s right to an abortion nationwide.
The justices are returning to the courtroom after an 18-month absence caused by the coronavirus pandemic, and the possible retirement of 83-year-old liberal Justice Stephen Breyer also looms.
Justice Amy Coney Barrett, the last of former President Donald Trump's three high-court appointees, is part of a six-justice conservative majority. Barrett was nominated and confirmed last year amid the pandemic, little more than a month after the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
The justices will hear arguments Dec. 1 in Mississippi's bid to enforce a ban on most abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Lower courts blocked the law because it is inconsistent with high court rulings that allow states to regulate but not prohibit abortion before viability, the point around 24 weeks of pregnancy when a fetus can survive outside the womb.
Mississippi is among 12 states with so-called trigger laws that would take effect if Roe is overturned and ban abortion entirely.
By a 5-4 vote in early September, the court already has allowed a ban on most abortions to take effect in Texas, though no court has yet ruled on the substance of the law.
In early November, the court will take up a challenge to New York restrictions on carrying a gun in public, a case that offers the court the chance to expand gun rights under the Second Amendment. Before Barrett joined the court, the justices turned away similar cases, over the dissents of some conservative members of the court.
More than 40 states already make it easy to be armed in public, but New York and California, two of the nation's most populous states, are among the few with tighter regulations.
A case from Maine gives the court another opportunity to weigh religious rights in the area of education. The state excludes religious schools from a tuition program for families who live in towns that don't have public schools.
Among other notable cases, the justices will consider reinstating the death sentence for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The Biden administration is pushing for the capital sentence, even as it has suspended federal executions and President Joe Biden has called for an end to the federal death penalty.
The court will also weigh two cases involving "state secrets," the idea that the government can block the release of information it claims would harm national security if disclosed. One case involves a Guantanamo Bay detainee who a lower court said was tortured in CIA custody. The other involves a group of Muslim residents of California who allege the FBI targeted them for surveillance because of their religion.
Decisions in the most of the big cases won't come before spring because the justices typically spend months drafting and revising majority opinions and dissents.
The courthouse still is closed to the public, but live audio of the court's arguments will be available and reporters who regularly cover the court will be in attendance. The tradition-bound court first provided live audio in May 2020, when the court began hearing arguments by telephone during the pandemic.
Justice Brett Kavanaugh will participate remotely from his home next week during oral arguments after testing positive for COVID-19 despite being vaccinated. The court said Friday that the 54-year-old justice has no symptoms.