After several years of quiet deference to its coordinate branches of government, the US Supreme Court in 1983 forcefully reminded Congress, the President, and the nation of its considerable power.
The court will adjourn its 1982-1983 term this week. The new term begins Oct. 3. During this interim, legislators and White House policymakers will be hard at work assessing the impact of the court's recent rulings on the powers of Congress and the policies of the Reagan administration.
A major concern will be the repercussions of the decision striking down the so-called legislative veto. Over 200 federal laws may be affected. But this term's rulings have also had a significant impact on Reagan administration policies, on criminal law doctrine, and on the First Amendment guarantees of free expression.
Reagan administration and the court
The justices this term rebuffed a concerted effort by the Reagan administration to use the court's power to bring about major shifts in national policy affecting individual rights.
The administration's record in these cases was 3-2-1: three losses, two postponements, and one win.
Dismissing administration arguments, the court upheld the power of the Internal Revenue Service to deny tax-exempt status to discriminatory private schools.
Rejecting an administration invitation that it turn over the business of regulating abortions to the legislative branch, the court vigorously reaffirmed its landmark 1973 ruling that guaranteed women a constitutional right of privacy in deciding whether to have an abortion.
And the court made clear to the administration that the deregulation of American business must proceed in a deliberate and reasoned fashion. The court overturned an administration decision to rescind a federal regulation requiring that all new cars be equipped with automatic airbags or seat belts. The rule was to have gone into effect this September. The court held the 1981 rescission invalid, calling it an arbitrary and capricious decision.
The justices did not deny the executive the power to cancel such regulations; they simply told the administration that it must have just as much evidence to support rescinding such a rule as it had to support adopting the rule in the first place.
The court postponed rulings on two other issues of concern to the Reagan White House - affirmative action and the controversial ''exclusionary rule'' barring the use of illegally obtained evidence at trial. But by accepting similar cases for review in the 1983-1984 term, the justices have given the administration another chance to argue its views.
The administration's major victory came late in the term, when the court voted 5 to 4 to uphold a state tuition tax deduction for parents of school children. President Reagan has asked Congress to approve a similar federal measure. But the narrowness of the court's vote and the reasoning of the majority presented Congress and the administration with new hurdles to clear in drafting an acceptable federal plan.
Criminal cases - conservative rulings
In the term now ending, the court continued to take a generally conservative position on questions of criminal law.
Prosecutors won two out of every three cases they argued before the court this term, persuading the court to overturn a large number of lower court rulings in favor of defendants and prison inmates. Among these victories were a number of decisions expanding the power of police to search for and seize evidence. In the most notable of these, the court made it easier for police to obtain a search warrant on the basis of an anonymous tip. In a second the justices upheld the power of customs officials to board boats without a warrant to inspect the vessel's documentation.
When the court voted in favor of a defendant, the margin of victory was usually a narrow one. Only by a 5-4 vote did a prison inmate win the right to recover punitive damages against a prison guard on duty at the time the inmate was beaten and raped by his cell mates. And by a similarly slim margin, the court nullified a life sentence for a man convicted, over a period of 15 years, of seven nonviolent, minor crimes.
More liberal on First Amendment cases
With the major exception of the tuition tax case, the court continued to compile a liberal record on First Amendment issues.
The court found a succession of state laws to be impermissible infringements on First Amendment freedoms. Included were an Ohio law requiring an independent presidential candidate to declare his candidacy months ahead of major party candidates, a Minnesota law taxing paper and ink consumed by major newspapers, and a Massachusetts law giving churches a virtual veto over liquor license applications by nearby establishments.
In addition, the court struck down a federal law barring peaceful protests in front of the Supreme Court building and another prohibiting the mailing of unsolicited advertisements for contraceptives.
The First Amendment guarantee for freedom of religion was cited in the cases challenging IRS denial of tax-exempt status for some private schools. The schools contended that their discriminatory policies were based on religious belief. The court held that any infringement upon First Amendment freedoms was outweighed by the national policy against racial discrimination.
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