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With Conservative Edge, High Court Cuts a Wide Swath

Law: Justices end term highlighted by Bush vs. Gore but sprinkled with far-reaching decisions.


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court term that ended last week showed again that the justices are not shy about imposing their will--whether it is deciding a presidential election, managing the use of public school buildings or even determining the rules of professional golf.

They are known as the "Supremes" in Washington, and for good reason. Confident of their abilities and determined to have the last word on the law, the justices rarely defer to the decisions of others.

Their boldness and decisiveness was on display in this term's most memorable case, Bush vs. Gore.

On a Saturday in mid-December, the court on a 5-4 vote issued an emergency order to stop a statewide hand recount of presidential votes in Florida. And late the following Tuesday, the court issued an unsigned opinion, accompanied by four dissents, that said the recount was unconstitutional and could not continue, effectively making George W. Bush the presidential winner over Al Gore.

While these decisions will be long debated, the court's handling of the case highlights two trends on display throughout the year.

One is judicial assertiveness, a willingness to intervene and reverse decisions made at other levels of government.

The second is ideological. On matters that divide liberals and conservatives, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist continues to be able to muster a narrow conservative majority. He can almost always rely on Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, and usually on Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy.

Besides the Florida case, these justices voted together in 14 other disputes that ended in 5-4 decisions. In these rulings, for example, the court declared that:

* Congress cannot protect state employees with disabilities from job discrimination. The decision in Alabama vs. Garrett rejected a discrimination claim brought by a nursing supervisor who was demoted after she was treated for breast cancer. States have a "sovereign immunity" that shields them from suits, the court said.

* Federal environmental regulators cannot protect isolated wetlands and ponds. The Clean Water Act does not reach these inland waters, it said.

* The Civil Rights Act of 1964 does not authorize lawsuits from blacks, Latinos or minorities over policies of states, schools, colleges or the police that have a discriminatory effect on them. The law covers only claims of intentional discrimination, it said.

* Local school officials cannot close their buildings to Bible study groups if others are allowed to meet there. Religious groups have a free speech right to be included, it said.

* State and local officials may not restrict the advertising of cigarettes to shield children. The 1st Amendment protects the right to advertise, it said.

Years ago, conservatives complained about the court's liberal activism and its willingness to oversee how police questioned suspects, how schools dealt with prayer and how states administered the death penalty.

These days, the court has become more conservative, but several of these rulings suggest that judicial activism has not waned.

"It's true across the board. [The justices] don't defer to anyone," said former U.S. Solicitor General Walter E. Dellinger.

The court's more liberal members did score some important victories during the term. Indeed, the court turned an increasingly skeptical eye on several laws that had been passed by a Republican-controlled Congress.

In 1996, GOP-backed legislation barred legal aid lawyers from going to court to challenge welfare reform laws. But on a 5-4 vote this year, the court tossed out this restriction as unconstitutional. Kennedy cast the key vote by joining the liberal coalition of John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

O'Connor joined this bloc in a North Carolina case to give states more leeway to cluster black voters in Democratic-leaning electoral districts. So long as districts are redrawn for political reasons, not racial ones, they are constitutional, the court said.

And on a 6-3 decision--with O'Connor, Kennedy, Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer in the majority--the court limited the power of police in the war on drugs, striking down the use of roadblocks aimed solely at searching for narcotics.

Even the rule makers in pro sports were not beyond the court's reach. On a 7-2 vote, the justices told PGA Tour Inc. that it must allow disabled golfer Casey Martin to ride in a cart so that he can compete in a tournament.

Last week, the immigration reform laws of 1996 came under attack.

Kennedy joined with the liberal group to rule that the courthouse is not closed to legal immigrants facing deportation because of a criminal record. The Republican Congress had voted to make such deportations virtually automatic, even for those immigrants whose crime was a minor theft or the sale of a small amount of drugs.

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