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Supreme Court blocs set in stone

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

And the court revived a racial-bias lawsuit from a black assistant manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant near Chicago who said he was fired after complaining about the mistreatment of other black employees. The restaurant chain contended that his suit should have been dismissed because the old civil rights law at issue did not cover claims of “retaliation.”

In those bias cases, Scalia and Thomas dissented alone.

Surprisingly, employees won all the key job discrimination cases this year. In a victory for older workers, the court said employers must prove they had relied on “reasonable factors other than age” if their layoffs fall hardest on workers older than 40.

But business also benefited from a new and emerging trend. The justices have increasingly said federal regulatory laws trump, or preempt, state laws.

Two weeks ago, the court struck down a California law that would have barred employers from using state funds to oppose union organizers. The high court said it conflicted with federal labor law.

And in February, the court said the makers of federally approved medical devices cannot be sued by patients who say they were injured by a defective device. Their lawsuits, filed in state court, were said to conflict with the federal law.

States such as California also were told they could not require delivery services, such as UPS or FedEx, to check to make sure they would not be delivering products such as cigarettes or alcohol to minors. The justices said state rules conflicted with federal laws that deregulated the airline and trucking industries.

In that case, and others like it, the justices were either unanimous or nearly so in their decisions. But by late June, when the major cases were handed down, the 5-4 divide emerged stronger than ever.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Key decisions during the 2007-08 term

Guantanamo Bay

Prisoners held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba may seek their freedom from a federal judge and try to show they were wrongly held as “enemy combatants.” The court rejected President Bush’s claim that the right to habeas corpus did not extend to foreign prisoners held by the military outside of this country. (Boumediene vs. Bush)

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Gun rights

The 2nd Amendment protects an individual’s right to keep a gun for self-defense, and the District of Columbia’s ban on handguns at home is unconstitutional. The court rejected the city’s claim that the 2nd Amendment dealt only with service in an organized militia. (District of Columbia vs. Heller)

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Death penalty

State execution for the rape of a child is “cruel and unusual punishment,” and this ultimate punishment is reserved for individual crimes that involve a murder. The government, however, may impose a death sentence for crimes against the state, such as treason. (Kennedy vs. Louisiana)

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Voter identification

States may insist that registered voters show a current identification card before casting a ballot. The court rejected Democrats’ claim that these laws were unconstitutional because they would deter some poor, elderly and minority voters from going to the polls. (Crawford vs. Marion County Election Board)

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Lethal injection

States may use lethal injections to carry out the death penalty unless it can be shown there is a “significant risk” that an inmate will suffer excruciating pain. The court saw no such evidence in a test case from Kentucky. (Baze vs. Rees)

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Exxon Valdez

Civil damages intended to punish a ship owner for reckless conduct are limited to actual economic losses. Applying that formula, the court reduced the punitive damages against Exxon Mobil for the 1989 oil spill in Alaska to $507 million, about one-tenth of what the jury awarded. (Exxon Shipping Co., et al, vs. Baker)

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Campaign finance

Wealthy candidates who spend more than $350,000 to fund their campaigns cannot be penalized by freeing their opponents to accept larger donations. The court invoked the 1st Amendment to strike down the so-called millionaire’s amendment in the McCain-Feingold Act. (Davis vs. Federal Election Commission)

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Sentencing

Judges may set shorter prison sentences than are called for in the federal guidelines if there are reasons for leniency. In a pair of drug cases, the court upheld two shorter sentences and gave judges more leeway in deciding punishment. (Gall vs. United States)

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Medical devices

Injured patients or their survivors may not sue the makers of allegedly defective medical devices if the devices were approved for sale by the Food and Drug Administration. The court said federal law trumps, or preempts, such claims. (Riegel vs. Medtronic Inc.)

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Source: Times staff


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