A mostly conservative court Supreme Court: On some big issues there are still no clear majorities.


A YEAR AGO, the Supreme Court seemed to be headed in a determinedly conservative direction. This year, the pattern is less clear.

At the close of the term, the court turned down a case that could have produced an overhaul of the nation's affirmative action cases. On that issue, as on the use of race as a factor in drawing congressional districts, the court has apparently not yet found enough agreement to produce clear-cut decisions.

The term brought some important victories for business, including, among others, a decision upholding corporations' ability to downsize, another overturning a $2 million punitive damage award for a touched-up paint job on a new BMW and a significant gain -- potentially costly to the government -- for savings and loans institutions that incurred losses under a 1989 federal law.

The court also handed some important victories to police and prosecutors. In one case, the court ruled that it is constitutional to use the law of civil forfeiture to seize property while also prosecuting defendants under criminal law -- a key strategy in federal anti-drug efforts. The court also gave police more power to make traffic stops if they suspect drug violations.

But two of this term's high-profile cases were distinctly not conservative victories -- a 6-3 decision striking down an amendment to the Colorado constitution prohibiting laws explicitly protecting the civil rights of homosexuals and a 7-1 decision prohibiting states from funding an all-male military institution without providing equal opportunities for women.

On several key issues, the court's conservative core, Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia jTC and Clarence Thomas, attracted the votes of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, who often provide the court's swing votes. But in some key instances those two justices instead joined the court's more liberal wing, composed of Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter and Clinton nominees Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. One example: Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the Colorado case.

Despite those instances, this court remains largely conservative. With at least two justices rumored to be contemplating retirement, the Supreme Court's make-up should be an important issue in the presidential campaign. Bob Dole, the all but official Republican nominee, has already attempted to make an issue of President Clinton's judicial appointments, which he says are too liberal. Judging by the results of the 1995-96 term, that may be a difficult argument to pursue.

Pub Date: 7/07/96

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