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Key rulings of the 2003-04 Supreme Court

Politics | Clarence Thomas voting to protect the rights of internet pornographers? Stranger things may have happened on the Supreme Court this term -- but not often

Issue: "Kerry picks Edwards as VP," July 17, 2004

Once again, the Supreme Court split 5-4 on a number of important decisions, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor often providing the pivotal vote and Justice Antonin Scalia providing a most entertaining and incisive dissent. Here's a look at some of the court's major cases this term: Campaign finance Synopsis: The court ruled that sweeping reforms of the campaign-finance system did not violate constitutional protections of free speech. Margin: 5-4 Outcome: Not clear-cut, though the main supporters of campaign-finance reform were Democrats and liberal interest groups. Quote: "This is a sad day for the freedom of speech. Who could have imagined that the same Court which, within the past four years, has sternly disapproved of restrictions upon ... virtual child pornography, tobacco advertising, dissemination of illegally intercepted communications and sexually explicit cable programming would smile with favor upon a law that cuts to the heart of what the First Amendment is meant to protect: the right to criticize the government" (Justice Scalia, dissenting). Death penalty Synopsis: Although the court said in 2002 that only juries -- not judges -- could impose the death penalty, it ruled this year that that decision need not be applied retroactively. The new ruling allows more than 100 executions to go ahead as planned. Margin: 5-4 Outcome: Conservative. Banning -- or at least weakening -- the death penalty is one of the most cherished goals of the left. Quote: "The right to jury trial is fundamental to our system of criminal procedure and States are bound to enforce the Sixth Amendment's guarantees as we interpret it. But it does not follow that, when a criminal defendant has had a full trial and one round of appeals in which the State faithfully applied the Constitution as we understood it at the time, he may nevertheless continue to litigate in hopes that we will one day have a change of heart" (Justice Scalia, for the majority). Sentencing Synopsis: As with the death penalty, the court decided that only juries -- not judges -- can lengthen prison sentences beyond the statutory maximum. Nine states, as well as the federal government, allowed judges to tack on extra time for particularly bad behavior. Margin: 5-4 Outcome: Not clear-cut. The court's two most conservative justices were joined in the majority by three of the most liberal. Quote: "The framers would not have thought it too much to demand that, before depriving a man of three more years of his liberty, the State should suffer the modest inconvenience of submitting its accusation to [a jury] rather than a lone employee of the state" (Justice Scalia, for the majority). Disabled rights Synopsis: The court ruled that the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) allows disabled persons to sue in federal court if they believe they have been denied access to crucial state institutions such as courthouses. Margin: 5-4 Outcome: Liberal. Conservatives both on and off the court believed that such an enforcement of ADA was a violation of federalism and states' rights. Quote: "Congress has authorized private damages suits against a State for merely maintaining a courthouse that is not readily accessible to the disabled, without regard to whether a disabled person's due process rights are ever violated" (Chief Justice Rehnquist, dissenting). Religious freedom Synopsis: The court found that Washington state did not violate the free exercise of religion by denying public scholarship funds to theology students. Margin: 7-2 Outcome: Liberal. Despite the presence of Chief Justice Rehnquist in the majority, the court's opinion further isolated religious voices from the public square. Quote: "Let there be no doubt: This case is about discrimination against a religious minority ... . What next? Will we deny priests and nuns their prescription-drug benefits on the ground that taxpayers' freedom of conscience forbids medicating the clergy at public expense?" (Justice Scalia, dissenting). Terrorist detentions Synopsis: The court ruled that more than 500 suspected Taliban and al-Qaeda members being held at a U.S. military base in Cuba could sue for their release in U.S. federal courts. Margin: 6-3 Outcome: Liberal. While even many conservatives argued that the Bush administration was wrong to hold two U.S. citizens without trial, opening the court system to foreign enemy combatants appears to be an unprecedented expansion of judicial power. Quote: "This is an irresponsible overturning of settled law in a matter of extreme importance to our forces currently in the field ... . The Guantanamo Bay detainees are not located within the territorial jurisdiction of any federal district court. One would think that is the end of this case" (Justice Scalia, dissenting).

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