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High court decides slew of hot-button cases in this term
Scripps Howard News Service


June 27, 2005

WASHINGTON - From Ten Commandments displays and state experiments with medical marijuana to Terri Schiavo's fate, the Supreme Court showed again this term why it is a storm center of American life.

The justices' refusal to second-guess Florida courts in allowing the removal of the brain-damaged woman's feeding tube provoked House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas to warn that judges would "answer for their behavior." He apologized later.

But other lawmakers have suggested stripping the court of the power to decide hot-button cases - including Ten Commandments and other cases that involve "the public acknowledgment of God as the sovereign" - and have called for impeaching judges they consider "out of the mainstream."

Such attacks apparently contributed to a slip in the court's popularity: The Pew Research Center found that only 57 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the justices, while Gallup reported only 41 percent give them a vote of confidence.

The court's splintered rulings Monday on Ten Commandments displays on government land marked a setback for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, whose treatment for thyroid cancer has fueled speculation that this would be his last term.

His 33-year high-court tenure has seen the court shift to the right, in part because of his concerns with easing the line for church-state separation, elevating protections for property owners and advancing states' rights. Although Rehnquist suffered setbacks in all three areas this term, Supreme Court lawyer Carter Phillips observed, Rehnquist has moved the court - "just not as far as some people want."

Here's how the justices ruled on major issues that came before them this term:


The court refused 5-4 to let two Kentucky counties display the Ten Commandments in courthouses, ruling that the evidence showed that county officials intended to advance religion despite the First Amendment requirement that government be neutral.

But by a 4-1-4 vote, the justices approved letting a Ten Commandments monument remain on the Texas state Capitol grounds. Justice Stephen Breyer noted in the opinion controlling the outcome that the Texas monument donated 40 years ago by the Fraternal Order of Eagles sits in a large park with 37 other monuments in a setting that doesn't lend itself to meditation or other religious activity.

Justice Antonin Scalia, reading from the bench, argued that the Ten Commandments should always be allowed because the framers intended religion to be part of public life and because 97.9 percent of Americans who are religious - Christians, Jews and Muslims - follow the commandments. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the fifth and deciding vote in the Kentucky case, countered that, while many Americans follow the commandments, "We do not count heads before enforcing the First Amendment."

The court also:

- Unanimously upheld a congressional act requiring government agencies to allow religious worship by prisoners, mental-hospital patients and others in state custody.

- Held that the federal government can assess cattlemen to finance the "Beef: It's What's for Dinner" government promotion. Lower courts are studying similar challenges by dairy farmers ("Got Milk?") and hog farmers ("Pork: The Other White Meat").


Local governments have broad power to seize homes and businesses against the owner's wishes for office parks, hotel projects, shopping malls, sports stadiums and other private projects, the court held 5-4.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the court, said that local officials - not federal judges - are best positioned to judge a project and its "benefits to the community, including - but by no means limited to - new jobs and increased tax revenue." But property-rights advocates condemned this reading of the Fifth Amendment power of government to take property for "public use" as "despotic democracy."


The Constitution's ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" bars capital punishment for defendants convicted of crimes committed before age 18, the court held 5-4. Justice Anthony Kennedy cited "evolving standards of decency," which the justices used two terms ago to end executions of the mentally retarded, and noted that the United States "now stands alone" in executing juvenile offenders.

In other cases:

- Restored to judges much of the sentencing discretion that Congress took away two decades ago when it ordered federal courts to follow mandatory guidelines to ensure more uniform sentences for federal crimes. The 5-4 ruling said the guidelines violate a defendant's constitutional right to a jury trial by giving judges the power to make factual findings. The court suggested the solution lies in discretionary guidelines that have yet to be worked out.

- Sidestepped deciding if Texas death-row inmate Ernesto Medellin can challenge his conviction on grounds that state officials violated international treaties when they didn't notify Mexican authorities they had charged a Mexican citizen with capital murder. The court, in an unsigned order, left it to the Texas courts to reweigh the case based on President Bush's promise to comply with a World Court ruling calling for a new review for Medellin and 50 other Mexican nationals in similar straits.


The federal law that bars sex discrimination in education also forbids school officials from retaliating against whistleblowers who bring sex-bias complaints, the court ruled 5-4.

O'Connor said that the statute, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, "does not require that the victim of the retaliation must also be the victim of the discrimination that is the subject of the original complaint."

The decision clears the way for coach Roderick Jackson to take the Birmingham, Ala., school district to court for firing him when he complained of unequal treatment for the girls' basketball team.

Easing the way for others claiming bias, the court:

- Held 5-3 that the Age Discrimination in Employment Act lets workers 40 and older take employers to court on grounds their personnel policies have illegal discriminatory effects without requiring workers to produce a "smoking gun" proving intentional age discrimination.

- Ruled 5-4 that the Americans with Disabilities Act requires foreign cruise ships that sail in U.S. waters to do more to accommodate passengers in wheelchairs.


Internet file-sharing services will be held liable if they intend for customers to use their software to swap songs and movies in violation of copyright law, a unanimous court ruled. Differentiating the technology from an earlier challenge to video recorders and their many legal uses, the court sent the file-sharing case back to a lower court, saying there is enough evidence of unlawful intent for computerized file swapping to go to trial.

Separately, the justices deferred to a Federal Communications Commission ruling that cable networks are not subject to federal "common carrier" rules that would require them to carry high-speed Internet service offered by other companies.

The court also held that states cannot stop wine lovers from shipping home bottles bought from out-of-state vineyards that they visit online or in person, except where states bar in-state shipments. Although the 21st Amendment gives states "broad power to regulate liquor," the court said, the constitutional requirement that states not discriminate against a sister state's goods "does not allow states to ban, or severely limit, the direct shipment of out-of-state wine while simultaneously authorizing direct shipment by in-state producers."


Federal bankruptcy law shields Individual Retirement Accounts from creditors, the court ruled. The unanimous decision gives IRAs the same protected status that workers enjoy for 401(k) accounts and traditional pensions.

On other consumer issues, the court held that the federal truth-in-lending law establishes a $1,000 cap on damage awards even where lenders use bait-and-switch tactics to raise a customer's loan costs.


Voting 6-3, the justices said the federal government can prosecute cancer patients and others whose doctors have prescribed marijuana for medical reasons under the laws of 10 states. States'-rights stalwarts Rehnquist, O'Connor and Clarence Thomas dissented, claiming that Congress overreached into traditional state police powers.


The court refused to let a Colorado woman sue police for failing to enforce a protective order that a court issued against her estranged husband before he murdered their three children and was shot dead by police.


Contact Mary Deibel at deibelm(at)

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