The crucial battles these days within the Supreme Court are among its six conservatives, not between them and the three liberals.
And the outcome in close cases now turns most often on one justice: Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Five years after he survived a bruising Senate confirmation, Kavanaugh has left little doubt about his conservative credentials, joining the 6-3 majority to roll back abortion rights and affirmative action. He voted to expand gun rights, block climate change policies and halt student loan forgiveness.
But Kavanaugh has shown he is not always a predictable vote, especially for the most conservative positions. He often joins Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. to hold the middle, and sometimes joins liberals to form a surprising 5-4 majority.
As the Supreme Court opens a new term Monday, where the conservative majority goes next depends in no small part on whether Kavanaugh aligns with Roberts, a conservative who prefers narrow rulings and gradual steps, or with Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr., who have long sought to push the law further right.
At stake this term will be whether 2nd Amendment gun rights are expanded to include those accused of domestic violence, the legal status of abortion pills and how far conservative states can go in regulating social-media companies.
If the last year's term was any indication, staunch conservatives may have reason to worry about Kavanaugh. He voted most often with Roberts. And he voted more often with the court's three liberals than with Thomas, the most conservative justice.
In June, with the fate of the Voting Rights Act in doubt, Kavanaugh cast a fifth vote to join Roberts and rule that Alabama's Republicans must draw a new congressional district that might elect a Black Democrat. They reaffirmed that position last month.
The four other conservatives joined a dissent by Thomas that would have barred considering the racial divide among the state's voters when deciding whether a redistricting plan is fair.
Kavanaugh also joined the chief justice in June to reject a broad claim from North Carolina Republican leaders who said state legislators alone, not judges, had an independent power over federal elections. This theory arose when allies of then-President Trump claimed that GOP state legislators could appoint their own slate of electors, even if President-elect Biden had won more votes.
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