WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ended its annual term last week just where it began: evenly divided between conservative and liberal blocs of four justices, with the deciding votes cast by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy.
And this year, unlike last, the outcomes of cases seemed evenly split as well. Both liberal and conservative sides won major victories countered by stinging defeats.
The near-even split also carries an election-year message for voters about the power of the presidency to set the future direction of the high court.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain has pledged to choose new justices who are like President Bush's two appointees: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
By contrast, Democratic rival Barack Obama has pointed with favor to Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David H. Souter. The latter is a Republican and an appointee of President George H.W. Bush, although he votes regularly with the court's liberal bloc.
This year, as usual, the major rulings came at the term's end, and Kennedy, the 71-year-old Sacramento native and President Reagan appointee, played the deciding role.
He spoke for the liberal bloc in two big cases. One rejected the Bush administration's policy of total military control over detainees held by the U.S. at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and said the prisoners have a right to plead for their freedom before a federal judge.
The other case limited the death penalty to crimes involving murder. A 5-4 ruling rejected a move in Louisiana and five other states to extend capital punishment to individuals who are convicted of raping a child.
But the conservative bloc also prevailed in three important decisions, thanks to Kennedy's vote. For the first time, the court ruled that the 2nd Amendment protects rights of individual gun owners, not just a state's right to organize a militia. This 5-4 decision is likely to be the opening salvo in a long legal war between advocates of gun rights and gun control.
The court again showed its skepticism toward laws that limit money in politics. A 5-4 ruling struck down the so-called millionaire's amendment, which allowed the opponents of rich candidates to accept larger donations. The court said it violated the free speech rights of wealthy candidates because it penalized them for their lavish spending on their campaigns.
And the court said again that it was determined to rein in big jury awards intended to punish corporate wrongdoers. The justices canceled most of the punitive damages handed down against Exxon Mobil Corp. for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. The more than 32,000 fishermen affected by the spill off Alaska were left with about one-tenth of the verdict amount that had been awarded by a jury more than a decade ago.
Last year, the court was evenly split -- with Kennedy in the middle -- on the regulation of abortion, the use of race in assigning students to public schools and the government's power to combat global warming. The ideological divide is so evident that the outcomes in most major cases can be nearly predicted on the day the court agrees to hear the case.
Last June, over strong objections from Bush's lawyers, the court said it would hear a case filed on behalf the Guantanamo prisoners seeking the right to go before a judge. Two weeks ago, as expected, the prisoners won on a 5-4 vote.
A shift in the court's ideological balance depends on the next vacancy. Because of the age of the justices, however, a President Obama would have less chance of transforming the court than a President McCain.
The two oldest members of the court, Justices John Paul Stevens, 88, and Ginsburg, 75, are among its most reliable liberals. If Obama replaced them, the court's balance would probably remain unchanged.
But McCain could tip the balance to the right if he were to replace Stevens or Ginsburg with a conservative.
The conservatives are the youngest members of the Supreme Court. Roberts is 53, Alito is 58, and Justice Clarence Thomas turned 60 last week.
At times this year, the court seemed slightly less divided than before. For example, Stevens and Breyer joined a 7-2 majority to reject a liberal challenge to the use of lethal injections to carry out the death penalty. They agreed there was no convincing evidence that condemned inmates would suffer intense pain during an execution.
Stevens also joined with the conservatives to reject the Democrats' challenge to new GOP-sponsored laws that require voters to show an up-to-date state identification card at their polling place. He said the challengers to an Indiana law failed to show this requirement would bar eligible voters from casting a ballot.
Meanwhile, in two cases involving racial bias, Roberts and Alito joined with the liberals. In a 7-2 decision, the court overturned a black man's death sentence in Louisiana because prosecutors had schemed to remove all the blacks from the jury.