WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court began its term last October facing a wide range of politically volatile cases and an ambitious bid by the Reagan Administration to push the justices to the right on major social issues.
By the time the court adjourned earlier this week, however, it had advanced the causes of civil rights and of feminists and other liberal groups--and dealt sharp setbacks to conservatives and the Administration.
The government lost high-profile attempts to abolish the right to abortion, expand protection for the newborn handicapped, limit the scope of new federal voting rights legislation and bar special job preferences for minorities who cannot show that they personally suffered discrimination.
Potential for Change
But close votes by the justices in pivotal cases underscored the potential for dramatic change if a moderate or liberal member of an aging court should leave the bench during President Reagan's tenure. Administration critics concede that their victories could prove short-lived.
"Perhaps the most striking aspect of the term was the court's consistent rejection of the extreme legal positions advanced by the Administration," said Burt Neubourne, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
". . . But a shift of a vote or two turns the Administration from a loser to a winner. Whether it is successful in the long run depends on any new people who join the court."
Solicitor General Charles Fried, the government's top lawyer before the court, acknowledged that the Administration lost in key cases. But he noted that the government continued to prevail in most of the scores of cases in which it was involved--either as a direct party or a "friend of the court"--and that several of the victories involved some of the court's most important rulings.
The court upheld the Justice Department's contention that the novel deficit-reduction mechanism of the Gramm-Rudman law was unconstitutional. And the court sided with Washington state school authorities backed by the Administration in upholding a ban on indecent speech by high school students.
But at least one conservative legal observer believes that the Administration this term suffered "the most pronounced rebuff" the court has dealt the chief executive in 50 years.
"They've pushed in areas where the court seems most resistant," said Bruce Fein, adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. "The justices aren't dumb. . . . They have to wonder whether some of these cases are being brought out of a strength of conviction or just for political benefit."
On major constitutional questions, the court chose an activist route in deciding for the first time that the time-honored practice of political gerrymandering may be challenged in court and found unconstitutional when it "consistently degrades" the voting strength of a party not in power.
Not since the 1960s, when they held that legislative redistricting was subject to court review and that reapportionment must follow the "one-man, one-vote" rule, had the justices so willingly entered the thicket of partisan politics.
But, in another big case, the court chose the course of "judicial restraint" when it held that the Constitution does not protect private homosexual conduct from prosecution under state laws prohibiting sodomy.
The justices stressed that the question was not whether such statutes were wise--but whether courts should step in to overturn laws that date to the 18th Century and are still in effect in 24 states.
In deciding another constitutional issue of far-reaching practical importance, the justices ruled that Congress, in enacting the Gramm-Rudman law, had intruded on the power of the executive branch by giving authority to the comptroller general, an officer under congressional control, to specify the cuts required to meet deficit-reducing targets.
The decision left intact the law's goal of balancing the budget by 1991--but it gave Congress the politically difficult choice of deciding whether to vote the cuts itself.
Next term, the makeup of the court is set to change with the retirement of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, the elevation to chief justice of Justice William H. Rehnquist and the addition of federal Court of Appeals Judge Antonin Scalia.
Major Change Unlikely
In essence, one conservative, Scalia, is replacing another, Burger, and few legal observers expect any immediate major change in the court's course. But, together, Rehnquist and Scalia--both regarded as perhaps more personable and persuasive than Burger--are likely to add strength to the court's conservative bloc.
The court term included important decisions on a wide array of issues, including:
AFFIRMATIVE ACTION. The justices, by a vote of 5 to 4, struck down as unconstitutional a teacher layoff plan that protected racial minority members at the expense of whites with more seniority.