Still Waters Run Deep At Court

After nine years without a change, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court gather for a group portrait at the Supreme Court Building in Washington, Friday, Dec. 5, 2003. Left to right in front row are: Associates Justice Antonin Scalia, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist, Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, and Anthony M. Kennedy. Back row, from left are: Associate Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, Clarence Thomas, and Stephen Breyer. AP

Attorney Andrew Cohen analyzes legal issues for CBS News and CBSNews.com.



There are memorable Supreme Court terms and then there are Supreme Court terms like the one we have just witnessed. No one retired from the Court between the first Monday of October, 2004, and the last week of June, 2005. There were no seminal decisions affecting the legal war on terror. No grand constitutional crises were averted. And nothing the justices decided is likely to fundamentally alter the political, cultural, or religious tensions that now reign in America.

The Court this past term resolved its share of important cases, of course, and some of these cases impacted the lives of millions of Americans. But the justices have that effect on the country each term. Every year the Court reapportions in ways large and small rights and responsibilities; power and priorities; rules and standards; liabilities and limitations. Under the Constitution, the justices more often tinker than they dismantle and this past term surely was a term of tinkering.

Today, wine drinkers in one state may buy wine from vineyards in another state. One year ago today, they could not. Today, the feds may prosecute users of medical marijuana whose doctors have prescribed the drug for them under valid state law. One year ago today it was not at all clear that the feds could. Today, the police may use search dogs to inspect cars even if they have no reasonable suspicion that there are drugs in that car. One year ago today, the police could not undertake those sorts of searches. One year ago today, it was unclear whether local officials could for economic purposes take private property for just compensation under "eminent domain" powers. Today, it is clear that they may if state law permits it.

One year ago today, employers could not be held liable for age discrimination if they did not intend to harm the employee. Today, those employers may be held liable. One year ago today, federal judges were required to impose sentences in criminal cases based upon mandatory guidelines established by Congress and the Justice Department. Today, those guidelines are merely advisory. One year ago today, it was unclear whether federal law prohibited foreign felons from possessing firearms here in the States. Today, it is clear that this federal law falls short of that goal.
  • Lloyd Vries

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