Rehnquist's court, but liberals gain
The just-finished term yielded a string of rulings that set back conservatives.
If constitutional interpretation were race-car driving, the US Supreme Court term that ended this week would be notable more for applying the brakes than hitting the accelerator.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Two key areas of conservative jurisprudence hit speed bumps in major rulings - property rights and federalism, or states' rights.
As a result, the so-called federalism revolution is suddenly looking a lot less revolutionary. Some analysts are questioning whether the "Rehnquist Court" under conservative Chief Justice William Rehnquist might be better described as the "Stevens Court," in recognition of the behind-the-scenes role of Justice John Paul Stevens in assembling majorities supporting liberal decisions.
"Justice Stevens has never had a more profound influence," says Jonathan Turley, a professor and longtime court watcher at George Washington University Law School. But he says it is premature to declare a Stevens Court. "To the extent that the Rehnquist revolution has slowed, it is because it can't go any further without creating massive legal changes," he says. They are changes that the conservative wing itself - particularly centrist swing voters Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and/or Anthony Kennedy - is unwilling to unleash.
Carried to their extreme, the federalism and property-takings projects might have triggered a wholesale assault on much of the modern regulatory state that dates from the New Deal. But instead of a call to arms, the conservative wing disintegrated, leaving the chief justice with no blockbuster precedents this year.
In contrast to the conservative drought, the high court produced a string of liberal victories. The juvenile death penalty was struck down as unconstitutional, the court made it harder to exclude black jurors from cases involving black defendants, and the justices embraced expansive interpretations of three civil rights laws, making it easier to fight discrimination based on gender, age, and disability. The court also reversed four death sentences and ruled that defendants may not be routinely shackled in front of the jury during the penalty phase of a capital trial.
Analysts note that such outcomes aren't the work of Stevens alone. They point to the continuing importance of Justices O'Connor and Kennedy, who often wield the deciding vote in close cases.
This year, Kennedy, in particular, emerged in high-profile cases. He played a decisive role in striking down the juvenile death penalty. His was also the deciding vote in the property-rights case - siding with the City of New London, Conn., and against residents who objected to the city demolishing their homes to make room for a privately owned development project aimed at helping boost the city's tax rolls.
That decision is a major setback to what had been a growing property-rights movement seeking a more robust application of constitutional protections for private property. Instead, the five-justice majority adopted a constitutional interpretation that strongly favors cities and government officials rather than home and property owners.
Kennedy also voted in the majority in the other major setback for conservatives this term. By 6 to 3, the justices ruled that Congress has the authority to ban the medical use of marijuana even when state laws permit such use of the drug.