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Summer recess

Supreme Court | A look at how the high court has changed the country at the end of its term

WASHINGTON-Justice Anthony Kennedy may not be in the headlines very often, but he has proved again during this Supreme Court term that as the swing vote on the court he is one of the most powerful people in the country. The court rounded out its term by issuing final opinions Monday and granting some last petitions for the next term, which begins in October.

Sixteen cases before the court this term were decided 5-4, and Kennedy was in the majority-whether with the liberal bloc or the conservative bloc-in all but two of those cases. (Meanwhile, Justice Antonin Scalia, arguably the most read on the court, wrote the most opinions: 28.) Overall the conservative justices exerted stronger influence than the liberals, though the decisions weren't always so easily categorized. The court rolled back restrictions on campaign financing, delivered several major wins for businesses like Walmart and AT&T, and expanded First Amendment protections.

This term the justices have tended to be more agreeable and unified. According to statistics compiled by SCOTUSblog, the court decided unanimously or with only one dissenting vote 60 percent of the cases, an all-time high for the Roberts court.

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In the area of First Amendment protections, the justices on Monday ruled 7-2 that the state of California could not ban the sale of video games to minors, writing that video games should have the same First Amendment protection as books. "Crudely violent video games, tawdry TV shows, and cheap novels and magazines are no less forms of speech than The Divine Comedy," wrote Justice Scalia in the majority opinion. The court earlier this term ruled 8-1 that Westboro Baptist, the church mostly made up of the Phelps family, had First Amendment protections to protest at a military funeral, where the Phelps' held up signs about the soldier "in hell."

The state of Arizona had a number of high-profile cases before the court this term. In a closely divided opinion on free speech, the court ruled that Arizona's campaign finance law that attempted to "level the playing field" violated the First Amendment. Under the law, a candidate using public funds would receive matching public funds if his or her privately funded opponent spent more money. The court said the law restricts speech by burdening the speech of the candidate raising his or her own money, underscoring the court's principle that campaign spending is a form of speech, an idea that drew so much controversy in the Citizens United decision last year.

The court also allowed Arizona's law punishing employers of illegal immigrants to stand, saying the state could combat illegal immigration through licensing laws without conflicting with federal immigration law.

Among the sharply divided rulings where Justice Kennedy joined the majority, the court ruled that taxpayers challenging Arizona's tuition tax-credit program didn't have standing to sue because they were challenging a tax credit instead of spending. The Arizona program is a sort of indirect voucher program, where nonprofit groups distribute scholarships to students from a fund that taxpayers donate to, and taxpayers receive tax credits for donating. The challengers argued that the program violates the Establishment Clause by directing funds toward religious schools.

One victory for the liberal bloc was the 5-4 decision that ordered California prisons to reduce their populations because overcrowding was preventing prisoners from receiving medical care and has resulted in preventable deaths. Kennedy voted with the majority in this case, too.

For its next term beginning in October, the court has granted 41 cases so far-with a challenge to the new healthcare law the most anticipated case the court could hear.

Emily Belz
Emily Belz

Emily, who has covered everything from political infighting to pet salons for The Indianapolis Star, The Hill, and the New York Daily News, reports for WORLD from New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emzleb.

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