U.S. Supreme Court

Bad Term for Precedent, Rabble-Rousers

Updated: The U.S. Supreme Court explicitly overturned only three decisions this term.

But other precedents are on shaky ground, vulnerable because of decisions that give litigants a plan of attack in future cases, Linda Greenhouse writes in an end-of-the-term wrap-up in the New York Times.

Among the precedents that fell are two 1960s cases that barred companies from imposing minimum retail prices and allowed some litigants to sue despite missed filing deadlines.

Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, led the fight against the nominations of the court’s two newest justices, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

“This court has shown the same respect for precedent that a wrecking ball shows for a plate-glass window,” he told the Times.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer Jr. argued that the court was overturning precedent even when it didn’t say so. “It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much,” he wrote in his dissent to the court’s decision striking down integration plans by two school districts.

But in the view of Notre Dame Law School professor Richard Garnett, the court is taking only small steps to change the law. “I don’t see it as a counterrevolution,” he told USA Today. “I think it is more modest. [The justices] are refusing to extend precedents with which they have problems.”

Many Supreme Court writers are declaring the new court to be more conservative and more pro-business, including Tony Mauro of Legal Times, Joan Biskupic of USA Today, Bob Egelko of the San Francisco Chronicle, and David G. Savage of the Los Angeles Times.

“Roberts and Alito have been everything conservatives could have hoped for and everything liberals could have feared,” Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky told Egelko.

Greenhouse sees another theme: The court is limiting the ability of plaintiffs to bring lawsuits or to appeal negative rulings. The Wall Street Journal (sub. req.) also notes the trend.

“As it addressed issues large and small, in civil disputes and criminal justice alike, the court’s resurgent conservative bloc repeatedly found that the question didn’t belong before a judge at all,” says the Journal story by Jess Bravin.

Biskupic summarizes the court’s rulings in yet another way, saying people “on the fringe” lost out before the new court, including atheists and “rabble-rousing students.”

The Supreme Court is likely to be a big issue in the next election, Savage writes in his Los Angeles Times story. Eight-seven-year-old John Paul Stevens and 74-year-old Ruth Bader Ginsburg are the court’s most senior and among the most liberal justices, and will probably be replaced by the next president.

Original post on 07-02-07 at 8:34 AM.

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