Inspired by democracy and motivated to break down barriers, Nathan Bruemmer began law school at age 40.
“This country told me I don’t matter, I don’t have a voice,” said Bruemmer, a 47-year-old transgender man who throughout his life felt blocked from opportunities that came easily to others.
But the law was a force he could lean on, a system he came to respect. Cases that end in fair verdicts give him hope.
This week, however, felt like a step backward. The confirmation and swearing in of Amy Coney Barrett as an associate justice on the United States Supreme Court left Bruemmer and other advocates questioning whether they’ve done enough to push conversations about equal rights and protecting their standing under the law.
“This appointment and this moment has been a gut punch,” said Bruemmer, who lives in St. Petersburg.
For others, like 69-year-old Marion Clarke of Bradenton, it felt like a triumph. Clarke signed a petition to end abortions before hopping in line outside Raymond James Stadium to attend Thursday’s rally for President Donald Trump in Tampa.
“She’s the smartest person in the room," Clarke said of Barrett.
Her appointment to succeed the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg, giving the court a decisive 6-3 conservative majority, cuts both ways in politically purple Tampa Bay. And it will touch many corners of American life, affecting the abortion issue, LGBTQ protections, health care, religious freedom, the environment and business.
The presence of six conservative justices works as "an insurance policy,” said Mary Ziegler, a professor at Florida State University’s College of Law. If one of them were to break ranks, there are more than enough others on the court to keep rulings on the conservative side, she said.
“There are really dark and stormy waters ahead,” said Bruemmer, who nevertheless clings to hope that some rulings may tilt more progressive.
You never really know an outcome until the decision is made, he said. Unexpected outcomes have happened. But, “maybe it’s false hope."
In its next major case, the court will review Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, in which a Catholic foster care agency sued after the city said it could no longer refer children to them. The agency was not accepting same-sex couples as foster parents, in violation of the city’s nondiscrimination policy. But the Catholic agency contends it had the right to discriminate based on the First Amendment.
Lower courts have ruled in the city’s favor. The case, set to be argued Nov. 4, pits LGBTQ rights against religious freedom and could have implications further down the road, according to Ziegler. A ruling against the city of Philadelphia could allow private organizations receiving public money to refuse services based on religious beliefs, affecting the availability of things like contraception and impacting treatment of LGBTQ people.
The fate of the Affordable Care Act may also be decided by this court. And the justices will soon decide whether to take a case reviewing Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks, which directly challenges Roe v. Wade, the ruling that protects the right to an abortion.
“In the short term, we’re more likely to see the court uphold an increasingly high number of abortion restrictions,” said Ziegler. “It’s more a question of when, not how.”
Karen Lieberman, of St. Petersburg, remembers feeling an overwhelming sense of relief when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. She was living in New York at the time and had been demonstrating for abortion rights. The ruling meant she could focus on other issues.
But, “that feeling of relief didn’t last for long,” said Lieberman, 70. “From the minute it got passed, I felt like people were coming after us to get it overturned.”
With Barrettt on the court, Lieberman said she fears that women’s right to choose will be set back a century. And after decades of activism, she thinks about the impact on her grandchildren, ages 7 and 9.
“I often feel very guilty that I haven’t done enough to leave them a better world,” she said.
As she waited to get into Thursday’s Trump rally in Tampa, Clarke said she supports a women’s right to choose, but does not support the termination of pregnancies that are too far along.
She contends that Barrett will go down as one of the best justices in history. “She respects the Constitution,” Clarke said.
Also at the rally was 69-year-old Chris Cresten-Rosa of St. Petersburg, who opposes abortion and same-sex marriage.
“This country has got to get back to conservative values,” Cresten-Rosa said.
Over the years, anti-abortion voters like Scott Mahurin of Pinellas Park have put their faith in landmark cases like Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which challenged a Pennsylvania law placing restrictions on abortions. The 1992 ruling in that case, which affirmed Roe v. Wade, has kept him from getting his hopes up, said Mahurin, the director and founder of Florida Preborn Rescue.
Today, he’s leading an anti-abortion petition.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Mahurin said.
Other Tampa Bay residents have completely different concerns, with fears about what the Supreme Court’s new makeup will mean for marriage equality, disability rights, and equitable health care.
“It’s incredibly worrisome for disability rights,” said Amber DiPietra, a 42-year-old St. Petersburg resident who has been disabled since she was 2. DiPietra fears that if the Affordable Care Act is overturned, those living with disabilities will face an increase in the barriers to health care that already exist, potentially causing individuals to become further disabled.
The effects of this nomination are “so pervasive that I can’t point to one fear or one specific case,” said DiPietra. She fears that Barrett’s record of fighting to limit women’s decisions about their bodies will translate to restrictions on disability autonomy.
“Each disabled person has the right to control their own body,” she said.
The concerns are impacting mental health for some, particularly those in marginalized communities, community activists say.
“It’s deep. It’s potentially trauma,” said Breummer, the transgender man who became a lawyer. “Are we there to support and nurture the LGBTQ folks who these decisions might hurt in very real ways?”
Some advocates say younger voters could put the nation on a different path.
“There’s a generation coming of age and heading to the ballot box who will continue to push the country forward when it comes to a full range of civil rights and equity,” said Nadine Smith, executive director of Equality Florida.
Current leaders “have miscalculated where the country is,” Smith said, "and what we’ll do to protect the people we love.”
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.