Inside The Mind Of The Supreme Court

000606 Early Show Andrew Cohen
The Supreme Court, as it wound up this term, showed that it still has a conservative majority but it retains the capability to surprise -- as it did just this week in reaffirming the constitutional dimension of Miranda warnings for those about to be questioned by police. The court remains unwilling in most cases to tread upon what it considers to be the legislative authority of Congress or state legislatures-- but it continues to be willing to stand up for certain constitutional guarantees which contradict the majority's will.

The court's members still basically fall into three camps of judicial philosophies.

There is a generally liberal wing of the court, which consists of Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Stephens; there is a generally conservative wing of the court, which consists of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas; and a wing of judicially "moderate" Justices -- O'Connor, Souter and Kennedy. As it has in terms past, the moderate wing of court often made the difference in the many 5-4 court decisions the justices issued during the term, including the decisions announced Wednesday in the field of abortion rights and abortion protest.

There were no new alliances among Supreme Court justices this term-- no discernible trace of any subterranean shifts in the legal philosophies of any of the court's members suggesting that a sea-change in legal thinking occurred or is likely to occur in the next few terms.

For the moment, it's safe to say, the court's center is holding. But how long the center will hold may depend significantly upon the winner of the next presidential election. The next president likely will have the opportunity to name several new justices to the court, as several of the current justices reach the age where retirement is possible, even likely. If the next President is Al Gore, the court may turn a bit to the legal left; if the next president is George Bush, the court is likely to take a turn to the judicial right. And the court's direction next term and into the future likely will be a key issue in the upcoming election campaign.

If there is one trend that somehow can be identified from the decisions issued by the Supreme Court during its 1999-2000 term, it's a trend which saw a majority of justices continue to believe in -- and vote for -- the pre-eminence of states' rights, powers, and protections even at the expense of federal interests and concerns. Sometimes the justices used federal laws to buttress state interests. And sometimes the justices ruled that federal laws could not infringe upon states' rights.

For example, the court this term threw out portions of a federal law that allowed rape victims to sue their attackers in federal court, holding that Congress had inappropriate interfered in an area traditionally left to the states. The court also shielded states from federal age-bias lawsuits and whistleblower laws and ruled that patients cannot sue health aintenance organizations under federal law while leaving open the possibility that such suits were possible under state law.

Apart from that trend, the court's term again was marked by decisions on several hot-button, emotional issues. Among them, the court ruled:

  • That late-term abortions, called "partial-birth" abortions by opponents of the procedure, could not be banned in a manner consistent with the constitutional protections afforded by the court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision. The court struck down as overbroad a Nebraska law banning the procedure in a decision likely to jeopardize similar laws in other states.
  • That laws prohibiting protestors from coming within 8 feet of their targets was a fair limitation on the first amendment rights of those protestors. The court upheld a Colorado "bubble" law aimed at keeping abortion protestors, and other protestors, from getting too close to the folks they want to communicate with. The decision is likely to encourage other states to enact similar laws.
  • That despite their public ties to various communities around the country, the Boy Scouts are a private organization and thus may constitutionally bar anyone from their organization. Holding that private organizations have a right not to associate with anyone it didn't want to associate with, the court's decision reversed a lower court ruling that found that the Scouts had violated New Jersey's anti-discrimination law by banning a homosexual from its group.
  • That student-led prayers at high school football games in Texas were an unconstitutional violation of the first amendment's mandate to separate church and state. The court upheld a lower court ruling which banned the practice at Santa Fe High School's home football games.
  • That grandparents did not have a constitutional right to visitation rights to their grandchildren in cases where the children's parents objected. The court threw out a Washington state law which permitted anyone to petition a court for such visitation rights.
  • That campaign contributions from individuals to candidates for federal office could be constitutionally limited by the states. The court upheld a Missouri law which limited such contributions to $1,000 and which had been voided by several lower courts.
  • That police officers sometimes can stop people just because they ran when they saw those officers. The court reversed a lower court decision which had thrown out the conviction of a person who had been convicted on weapons charged after running from the police.
  • That police officers could not search people based solely on an anonymous tip provided to law enforcement officials. The court upheld a lower court ruling which threw out a conviction of a person convicted on gun charges after the individual was stopped and searched pursuant to an anonymous tip.
  • That states could not, consistent with the federal government's priority in foreign affairs, consttutionally enact laws prohibiting companies from doing business with countries accused of human-rights violations. The court threw out a Massachusetts law aimed at improving human rights practices in Myanmar.
  • That juries, not judges, must be allowed to decide whether hate was a motivating factor in hate-crime prosecutions and thus relevant in determining whether heavy sentences are warranted. The court threw out a sentence issued by a judge in a hate-crime prosecution in New Jersey.

    By Andrew Cohen ©2000, CBS Worldwide Inc., All Rights Reserved