In the past year, the seven men and two women of the United State Supreme Court handed down opinions on nearly 100 cases and refused to review thousands of others, including a case challenging the secret deportation hearings held for foreigners detained after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Along the way, they made significant changes to the nation's political and social landscape. In their ninth year together, this group of justices, collectively known as the Rehnquist Court, made some dramatic shifts, reversed some previous decisions and handed one of the final battles of what conservative Justice Antonin Scalia dubbed “the culture wars” to the liberals. Here are few of those decisions and their implications.
Scheidler v. National Organization for Women - Feb. 26 In an 8-1 decision, the Court ruled that pro-life activists did not commit extortion by threatening or physically preventing women from accessing clinics. The Court decided that a women's right to seek medical services and a doctor's right to perform his job don't count as “property” that could be “obtained”; therefore the activists were not guilty of extortion under the Hobbs Act and could not be charged with a federal crime.
Ewing v. California - March 5 The Court ruled 5-4 that California's mandatory-minimum sentencing or “Three Strikes and You're Out” law is constitutional and should not be considered cruel and unusual punishment when applied in the cases of nonviolent offenders who commit nonviolent or less serious felonies as their third offence. In this case, Ewing, a 40-year-old addict with AIDS and a history of one violent robbery conviction and several nonviolent burglary convictions, attempted to steal three golf clubs. Although prosecutors could have considered the attempted theft a misdemeanor, they chose to elevate it to a felony. Ewing was eventually sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. The court ruled that states have the right to set and enforce sentencing minimums.
United States v. American Library Assn. Inc. - June 23 The Court, in a 6-3 decision, upheld the federal Children's Internet Protection Act requiring public libraries to install Internet filtering software that blocks graphic images so long as adults are free to turn those filters off. According to the majority opinion, the filters don't violate the First Amendment rights of library patrons. They also pointed out that many libraries already contain graphic materials, which are held behind the counter, and patrons must get assistance in order to access them. The Court also agreed that Congress has the right to require the use of filters if the federal government is subsidizing Internet access.
Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger - June 23 In the most watched cases of the year, the Court upheld the use of affirmative action in school admissions but indicated that the amount of advantage race can give minority students should be limited. The Court ruled 6-3 in Gratz v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan's policy to admit virtually all qualified applicants of African American, Hispanic or Native American decent violates both the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. However, in Grutter v. Bollinger the Court reasoned 5-4 that, because the University of Michigan's Law School conducts highly individualized reviews of its applicants, no admissions decision is based automatically on a single factor, and that this process ensures all factors contributing to diversity are meaningfully considered alongside race.
Lawrence v. Texas - June 26 The Court struck down a Texas law banning private consensual sex between adults of the same sex. The 6-3 decision by the Court was a reversal of its 1986 decision in the case of Bowers v. Hardwick, which said homosexuals had no constitutional right to have sex in private. The ruling effectively invalidated sodomy laws on the books in Texas and 12 other states while also establishing a broad constitutional right to sexual privacy and calling into question other types of “morals legislation” governing fornication and adultery. One of the most significant decisions of the year, this landmark case seems to establish new freedoms for consenting adults and may influence future decisions involving same-sex marriages and homosexuals in the military.
McConnell v. Federal Election Commission - Dec. 10 With a few exceptions, the Court decided 5 to 4 that the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002 (the so-called McCain-Feingold bill) did not exceed Congress' authority to regulate elections or violate the First Amendment's free speech clause. The bill banned unrestricted soft money donations to political parties and the solicitation of those donations by elected officials. It also limited the advertising that specific groups can engage in up to 60 days before an election and restricted how parties' use their funds for candidate advertising. Signed into law by President Bush in March of 2002, the bill will take immediate effect and should significantly change the way parties finance campaigns in next year's general election.
As momentous as this last term may seem, the docket is littered with future cases that promise to bring new challenges and fresh controversy before the Court. In the coming month, the justices are expected to consider the legal rights of detainees at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; the release of White House papers from Vice President Dick Cheney's energy policy task force; and the place of “God” in the pledge of allegiance.