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Supreme Court shows versatility in plowing through workload


By Charles Bierbauer
CNN Senior Washington Correspondent

July 3, 1998
Web posted at: 1:26 p.m. EDT (1726 GMT)

In this story:

WASHINGTON (CNN) - The Supreme Court justices have packed their briefcases and beach bags for the summer. As cases already pile up for the next session, it's a good time to reflect on the multifaceted demeanor the court displayed this past term.

A pragmatic court warned in its 1997-98 session that employers will be held responsible for sexual harassment in the work place. But employees must learn to complain when mistreated.

A concerned court lamented that sexual harassment is "all too common" in schools. But education law does not give the court the power to hold schools responsible for teachers who prey on students. Congress would have to change that.

A compassionate court ruled that those with HIV infections or AIDS suffer "impairment of a major life activity" and are, therefore, protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And a congenial court wrapped up its work for the year a few days early. With that, the justices dispersed to their array of plans for summer retreats, international law seminars, teachings and travel. So long until October.

As we watch them go, let's file away this year's cases and get prepped for next year.

Trying to keep a low profile

The justices handed down 91 opinions, 43 of them unanimous, in the session. Chief Justice William Rehnquist was intent on getting the work done. And it was a workman-like term, full of practical decisions affecting the workplace, business and government.

It was not a dramatic term, unlike the previous year. Then, in a flurry of term-ending decisions, the justices overturned all or part of major legislation, notably the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Brady Handgun Control Act and the Communications Decency Act.

The justices welcomed a lower-profile session and less frenzied finish this year, though they did cause some stir.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist  

They took away President Bill Clinton's line item veto. They rebuffed Independent Counsel Ken Starr's plea to gain evidence against the president by breaking the legal bulwark of attorney-client privilege.

And they turned their backs on New York, giving part of historic Ellis Island to New Jersey.

More than any other issue, the court took a stand on the way men and women relate. Most notably, the justices said illegal harassment can occur among persons of the same sex.

Among other rulings, the court said:

  • Fixing maximum prices on gasoline or other goods may be acceptable, even consumer-friendly, though anti-trust law forbade it until now.
  • A parent company may be held liable for cleaning up the pollution of its subsidiary.
  • Police officers may be immune from prosecution for injuries or deaths caused in high-speed pursuit of suspects.

The justices were deprived of the chance to rule on affirmative action, after civil rights groups settled the claim of a white teacher laid off by a New Jersey school district. The civil rights groups feared the court would use the case to overturn affirmative action.

"(The court) has been relatively strong on issues of women's equality and sexual harassment," said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union. "It has been weakest by far, from our point of view, on questions of race and criminal justice."

An agreeable bunch, in the main

In decisions this term in which the court narrowly divided, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote more often than not. He wrote the majority opinion in the 5-4 ruling that an HIV-infected woman may have been discriminated against when denied dental treatment because of her "disability."

The typically twinned conservative justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia uncharacteristically split their votes more often than in the past. Thomas wrote the 5-4 majority opinion -- over Scalia's dissent -- in a case condemning the U.S. government for seizing "excessive fines."

But close observers say the justices appear to get along well.

"It is a very amiable and collegial court," observed attorney and former Supreme Court clerk John Roberts, who argued four (and won three) cases this term.

"For whatever differences they have, I think more than in many, many years, they all seem to get along with each other and enjoy working with each other."

To a great degree, that's Rehnquist's doing. The chief justice is seen as a capable administrator who gets things done expeditiously and divides the caseload fairly.

Rehnquist is also no longer the conservative "Lone Ranger" he was when he joined the court a quarter century ago. The court has moved ideologically to where Rehnquist was in the first place.

Gearing up for next fall

It promises to be the same court come October. No change is foreseen, certainly not by the chief. The 73-year-old Rehnquist, presumably, would not want to give Clinton the opportunity to name a liberal as the next chief justice.

gang members
Suspected gang members in Chicago  

"We can expect William Rehnquist to stay until the next election and perhaps longer, depending on how he feels about his health and who is elected in 2000," said Mark Tushnet of Georgetown Law School.

Even if long-serving liberal John Paul Stevens, 78, were to retire, Clinton would not be able to shift the balance of the court, since he would likely name another liberal. Stevens shows no signs of giving the president that chance.

Looking ahead on their calendar, the justices will have to address these cases with racial implications:

  • In Chicago, is an anti-gang ordinance that allows police to break up street gatherings a violation of First Amendment rights of association?
  • In Chester, Pennsylvania, are waste, sewage and trash facilities deliberately built in minority neighborhoods? Is that "racial environmentalism?"

The full range of cases to go before the court will become clearer when the justices convene on the traditional first Monday in October. Until then, court's recessed.

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