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The Supreme Court’s “Big Three”

Welcome back to Keep it Rural after a break from Daily Yonder newsletters over the Fourth of July. Because this is the way it always seems to go, the past two weeks proved to be particularly newsworthy while our newsroom was sparsely staffed. Late June marked the end of an eventful U.S. Supreme Court term, with three major decisions garnering lots of headlines. 

But before I get to what I’ve been referring to as the “Big Three,” let’s take a look at some of the other Supreme Court decisions from this year’s term that may have gone overlooked.

Elections and Redistricting

Democrats saw a win in two election-related Supreme Court decisions: the first, about Alabama’s congressional districts, argued that the state’s Republican-drawn district map, established in 2021, violates the Voting Rights Act. Although Alabama is almost 27% Black, the current district map consists of only one majority-Black district and six majority-white districts. The court found this unlawful and Alabama is now required to create another majority-minority district. 

In other redistricting news, the Supreme Court upheld a decision made by the North Carolina Supreme Court that found the Federal Elections Clause does not vest “exclusive and independent authority in state legislatures to draw federal congressional maps.” In other words, state courts can stop the actions of state legislatures when it comes to redistricting and elections. The question came after North Carolina’s Supreme Court struck down an argument from their legislature claiming they should have final say on a district map that many argued was gerrymandered to favor Republicans.

Water Rights and Tribal Sovereignty 

Two decisions with very different outcomes for Indigenous people rippled across the country this term. 

One decision, related to Colorado River water rights between the Navajo Nation and several southwestern states, found that while an 1868 treaty requires the United States to set aside water for the Navajo Nation, the federal government is not required to take affirmative steps to secure that water, i.e., develop a plan for building infrastructure like pipelines, pumps, and wells to get water to different communities in the Navajo Nation. About 15% of people living in the Navajo Nation – the largest reservation in the United States and extremely rural – lack clean drinking water in their homes. 

The other decision with a very different outcome for Native folks came in mid-June when the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act was upheld. A consolidated lawsuit was filed by three non-Native families seeking to adopt Native children that claimed the law discriminates against race, an argument the Supreme Court ruled was unfounded. Native advocates in support of the Indian Child Welfare Act say the decision also supports tribal sovereignty, an argument I covered in a previous edition of Keep it Rural. 

More Water 

The definition of a wetland was contemplated this term after an Idaho couple backfilled a wetland on property they purchased in Priest Lake, a rural area in the northernmost part of the Idaho panhandle. The Environmental Protection Agency informed the couple they were violating the Clean Water Act, which protects the “waters of the United States,” the definition of which has been debated for decades. 

The couple sued the agency, arguing that their property did not fall under this definition; in late May, the Supreme Court found that the Environmental Protection Agency lacks the ability to regulate the couple’s property. The legal definition of a wetland protected under the Clean Water Act was changed to areas that connect with continuous waters. As the Natural Resources Defense Council put it, this means “any wetland that does not connect at its surface to another body of federally protected water doesn’t merit the same degree of protection.” 


A decision that’s gotten little press attention is one related to pork production in California. The Supreme Court upheld a California law that requires all pork sold in the state to be raised under more humane treatment standards, even if the pork was produced outside of California. These standards require pig confinement spaces to be large enough for the animals to stretch their legs, lie down, and turn around. The pork industry argued that the law requires producers outside of California meet California standards, which they said could drive small producers out of business.

The “Big Three”

And last but certainly not least, those “big three” decisions I mentioned that received the most attention. 

In a blow to the 55% of Americans who support some amount of student loan forgiveness, the Supreme Court ruled the Secretary of Education – the office with the ability to cancel or reduce loans – does not have the authority to cancel the approximate $430 billion in student debt held by borrowers in the United States. This decision affects rural borrowers especially: the default rate among student loan borrowers in the most rural states is 25% higher than that of borrowers in more populous states, according to research from the Student Borrower Protection Center. 

Another education-related decision threw out the use of affirmative action in student admissions at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. While this affects these two schools first and foremost, experts say the implications of this decision at other universities will be substantial as admissions offices grapple with how bias plays a role in their decisions. 

And finally, a ruling made in late June that set back LGBTQ+ rights marked the end to a fairly polarized Supreme Court term. A Colorado website designer, concerned she would be asked to design a wedding website for a same-sex couple, managed to get her case heard at the federal court even though she had never been asked by a same-sex couple to create a website or refused anyone business on the basis of their sexuality. Despite the criticism this drew from experts uncertain why the Supreme Court would hear this case, the court ruled in her favor, finding the state of Colorado’s public accommodation law unconstitutionally required her to create a message she opposed.

Rural Reading List

N.C.’s Border Belt Independent Provides a New Approach to Rural Journalism

A nonprofit newsroom in southeast North Carolina is helping change the journalism landscape in four rural counties. Collaboration with local newspapers is a big part of the strategy.

Rural SNAP Recipients Will Have Harder Time with Return to Work Requirements

In May, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program resumed work requirements for beneficiaries. A Daily Yonder analysis found that rural counties have fewer employment prospects, which means finding those jobs will be more difficult.

One More Thing: A Guest Edition

There will be new hands at the Keep It Rural keyboard  next week as I escape the internet for a little while and kayak around the Salish Sea, hopefully to spot an orca and definitely some gulls. The Daily Yonder’s data reporter Sarah Melotte is covering for me, and I’m very excited to read her edition as it will be nothing short of excellent. 

Until next time!

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