WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court that President Donald Trump rebuilt over the past two years shed some of its political reluctance Tuesday with a series of actions that gave conservatives hope.
The high court allowed the Trump administration to implement its partial ban against transgender troops in the military, even while it refused to hear the Justice Department's full-throated defense of the policy until lower courts have weighed in.
The justices also agreed to consider a Second Amendment challenge to gun restrictions for the first time in nearly a decade, a clear sign that at least four conservatives may be ready to extend gun rights.
The court delayed action on Trump's effort to end deportation protections for more than 700,000 undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children. But that may have been a temporary pause while the president and Congress squabble over immigration and border security.
The high court's actions were closely monitored as the clock winds down on its ability to schedule cases for the current term, which ends in June. The tug of war between its conservative and liberal factions still remains without a clear winner, but the addition of Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh has bolstered the court's right flank.
That was evident in a series of orders regarding the Pentagon's partial ban on transgender troops, paving the way for lower court blockades to be lifted. All four of the court's liberal justices said the injunctions should remain in place.
It was evident from the decision to hear the New York City gun rights case, which will shed light on restrictions that have withstood the court's landmark 2008 and 2010 rulings upholding the right to bear arms at home for self-defense. The court had sidestepped similar cases before Kavanaugh succeeded Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, its swing vote, last year.
And it was evident from the court's refusal to hear a religious liberty case involving a high school football coach fired for kneeling in prayer at the 50-yard line after games. Four conservative justices expressed concern for the coach's plight and signaled they may agree to hear a future case.
Only by delaying action on Trump's attempt to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, did the court hand conservatives a setback. But the justices still could hear the case in its next term, starting in October.
"The court is moving the ball, slowly," said Josh Blackman, associate professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston and an avid conservative court-watcher.
Here's a quick look at the Supreme Court's actions:
The justices lifted all but one injunction against the controversial plan, and the last one is expected to fall shortly. That will green-light a policy, first announced by Trump on Twitter 18 months ago, targeting transgender troops who would serve openly rather than according to their birth gender.
Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec hailed the court's action. "Due to lower courts issuing nationwide injunctions, our military had been forced to maintain a prior policy that poses a risk to military effectiveness and lethality for over a year," she said.
The high court's action followed a decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. It ruled that the policy had been fine-tuned by Pentagon officials over a period of months and no longer constituted a "blanket ban."
The Pentagon reiterated in a statement Tuesday that the policy is not a complete ban and that transgender troops will continue to be treated with respect and dignity. There are several thousand transgender troops serving now, according to a Rand Corp. study.
By taking no action on the administration's petition to end the DACA program, the justices merely kicked the can down the road further.
Trump's effort has been on hold for a year following a federal district judge's nationwide injunction. In November, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit upheld that ruling, chastising the administration for targeting "blameless and economically productive young people with clean criminal records."
The Justice Department had asked the Supreme Court to intervene even before the most recent ruling. But with its inaction, the court likely let slip any chance the case can be heard during the current term, which ends in June. That pushes oral argument to October at the earliest and a decision into 2020, if the court agrees to hear the case at all.
On Saturday, the president offered to grant three years of protection for the so-called Dreamers, but not a path to citizenship, as part of a deal to get $5.7 billion for a wall or steel barrier along the southern border. Republicans plan a vote in the Senate, but House Democrats have rejected it.
Surprising even Second Amendment advocates, the court agreed to consider a petition backed by gun owners' groups asking them to strike down New York City's strict rules for carrying legally owned guns outside the home.
The rules do not allow gun owners to transport firearms outside city limits, even to practice ranges or second homes. Lower courts have upheld the city's regulations.
Since 2010, the justices had refused to hear challenges from gun rights or gun control groups. That left issues such as assault weapons bans, trigger locks and the right to carry guns in public up to individual states.
“There’s a bunch of unsettled questions that need to be answered in the Second Amendment area,” said Adam Winkler, a UCLA School of Law professor who's written extensively on the battle over gun rights.
The court refused to tackle a First Amendment dispute between a Washington State school district and a football coach fired for praying in public view along with willing athletes.
The lawsuit by Joseph Kennedy, a Bremerton High School coach who was fired in 2015, had become a cause célèbre among religious conservative groups who argued that he was denied his free speech rights as a private citizen. Trump even tweeted support for the coach during his presidential campaign.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled in 2017 that Kennedy acted as a public official by praying in school attire and in full view of students and parents.
Four conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Kavanaugh – wrote separately Tuesday to register concerns about religious liberty.
"The (federal appeals court's) understanding of the free speech rights of public school teachers is troubling and may justify review in the future," Alito wrote.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Supreme Court's actions on transgender troops, gun rights, public prayer signal conservative trend