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Conservative majority emerges on court
Question of the Day
The Supreme Court limited abortion rights, restricted school-integration programs and gave freer rein to political advertising in the 2006-07 term, when a solid conservative majority emerged.
It was a significant, if unsurprising, term for divining the direction of the court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. It underscored the controlling influence of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and also how a change of just one justice — in this case, Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the seat formerly held by Sandra Day O’Connor — could alter the outcome of important cases.
The Roberts-led court displayed a deep ideological split, with conservatives winning twice as often as they lost.
“It was an extraordinary successful term for the conservatives and a very significant failure for the left of the court,” said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who argues before the court and follows it closely.
Richard Garnett, a University of Notre Dame law professor, agreed that the conservatives did well but added, “These are all still very incremental, small moves.”
The liberal justices’ frustrations boiled over in several cases in which they read pointed, emotional dissents.
“It is not often that so few have so quickly changed so much,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer said Thursday, reading from his dissent in the schools case.
More than a third of the court’s docket, 24 cases, were decided by 5-4 votes. Of those, 20 fell along conservative-liberal fault lines.
Among the 5-4 rulings:
* The court upheld a nationwide ban on “partial-birth” abortion, a ruling both sides of the bitter debate said could pave the way for further restrictions.
* The justices opened the door for increased influence by interest groups in the closing days of an election, easing legal barriers aimed at corporate- and union-financed TV ads.
* The court put new limits on the ability of local schools to ensure diversity, striking down voluntary integration plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle.
* In a rare win for the liberals, the court faulted the Bush administration for its failure to do anything about global warming or ground its inaction in science.
The only one in the majority on every ruling was Justice Kennedy, the Reagan appointee who at times has bitterly disappointed conservatives on social issues.
This term, he was not quite the swing voter many court watchers predicted. He sided with the conservatives about two-thirds of the time, including the decisions on abortion and public school integration.
By Orrin G. Hatch
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