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Affirmative action topped many landmark cases

By Bill Mears
CNN


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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Rulings touching on affirmative action, gay rights, Internet pornography and states' rights were among the landmark decisions that highlighted the Supreme Court's 2002-2003 session.

But the justices will have one more piece of business to tackle before the term officially ends. Their annual three-month recess will be cut short when they return in early September to hear a campaign finance reform case that could prove important in next year's federal elections.

The court tackled a wide range of topics in the 90 cases it agreed to hear: business issues dealing with copyrights and Holocaust-era insurance policies; free speech cases ranging from cross burning to abortion protests.

Rulings also covered forced medication on defendants, lingerie trademarks and dairy price supports. The justices also heard arguments in four death penalty cases, dealing with ineffective counsel, double jeopardy and jury selection.

"This court likes taking on hot button issues, with abortion as an exception," says Edward Lazarus, author of "Closed Chamber" an inside account of the court. "They like pushing the agenda."

A near-even split along ideological lines continues to produce close rulings. Affirmative action, three-strikes laws, and immigration detention were all 5-4 votes. That unpredictability is often marked by wide-ranging, often contentious debate among the justices.

"You can't ever label this court as totally conservative," says Thomas Goldstein, a legal analyst who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court. "It's always hard to put the court in a box of a particular label."

A road map for school admissions

The power of the court's centrist coalition, led by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor held sway in several key cases. O'Connor was the decisive swing vote in the affirmative action case, writing the majority ruling upholding the limited use of race-based admission standards in higher education.

"The Supreme Court explained to universities how it is that they can take race into account in admitting students, and it does lay a road map for the next 25 years on how they'll do that," said Goldstein.

"So long as you have a nuanced inquiry, not one that looks just at race, but other factors, that's OK. So in [government] contracting for example, job hiring, things that are going on in a particular industry, then you can have affirmative action, and that has been an open question for some time."

Under the leadership of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court continued its aggressive push hearing federalism cases, affirming for the most part the power of state laws over Congress and federal regulation. The justices upheld health care laws in Maine and Kentucky; mandatory life sentence laws for three-time felons in California; and sex offender registry laws in Alaska and Connecticut.

In a rare reversal, the Court ruled a federal family and medical leave law did apply to state workers, allowing a government employee's lawsuit against Nevada to proceed.

Despite a general pro-business stance in recent years, the court this term offered a mixed record. It extended potentially lucrative copyright terms on a range of artistic works such as Mickey Mouse and Tom Clancy novels; sharply capped the amount of punitive damages juries can award plaintiffs suing big business and industry; and gave the telecom industry a victory against the FCC over control of broadband licenses.

But on the other side the justices favored workers fearing asbestos exposure to recover damages against the railroads; and allowed a San Francisco activist to proceed with his lawsuit against shoemaker Nike, over claims the company engaged in false advertising.

Also, when it came to weighing state power against big business, states came out on top, dealing setbacks to the drug, health insurance, and telemarketing industries.

War on terror cases generally favored law enforcement

In the area of crime and terrorism, the conservative majority generally favored law enforcement. The justices gave police greater leeway in questioning criminal suspects, without fear of violating Miranda protections; and rejected appeals for relief from sex offenders and career criminals.

But justices sharply limited when prosecutors can use anti-psychotic medication on non-violent defendants in order to make them competent to stand trial.

And in two cases with possible future implications for terrorism cases, the justices ruled suspects can be charged with conspiracy when an alleged crime has already been discovered and prevented from ever occurring; and said non-citizens may continue to be detained before deportation proceedings begin. Hundreds of immigrants, many of them Muslims, were rounded up and questioned over possible terror ties in the weeks after the September 11 attacks.

The justices also refused to hear appeals for greater public access to closed deportation hearings that involved many of those Muslim detainees.

The Court marked an important anniversary in January, the 30th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision making abortion legal in the United States. The day was marked by marches and rallies by supporters on both sides of the issue.

The abortion rights group NARAL began airing television ads this spring, warning the right to abortion would be threatened if a vacancy on the court led to a more conservative justice joining the bench. Anti-abortion groups promise a similar campaign on behalf of conservative candidates to the bench.


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