Supreme Court Session in Review
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MARGARET WARNER: The Supreme Court term that just ended grappled with an unusual number of high profile cases. In some 80 rulings the Justices dealt with dramatic moral dilemmas like assisted suicide and with longstanding constitutional issues like the separation of powers, freedom of speech, and the relationship between church and state.
The most emotionally charged issue of the term was presented on behalf of several terminally ill people in Washington and New York States. They and their doctors had asserted that these patients were entitled to a physician’s help if they wanted to hasten their own deaths. The Supreme Court disagreed. In a unanimous ruling the court said two federal appeals courts had erred in striking down the Washington and New York laws that make it a crime for doctors to help terminally ill patients end their lives.
Chief Justice William Rehnquist, in the lead opinion, said that the U.S. Constitution does not afford Americans a blanket right to doctor-assisted suicide. He wrote that “The states’ assisted suicide bans are longstanding expressions of the states’ commitment to the protection and preservation of all human life.” He went on to say that the asserted right to assistance at committing suicide is not a fundamental liberty interest protected by the “due process” clause.
In separate concurring opinions, however, Justices David Souter and Sandra Day O’Connor indicated that while they were leaving this issue with state legislatures for now, they didn’t rule out intervening someday on behalf of a deeply suffering terminally ill patient.
In three other decisions as well, the High Court upheld state and local authorities in disputes with the federal government or lower courts. The first of these came in two cases brought by sheriffs in Arizona and Montana against the 1993 federal Brady Gun Control law. The sheriffs objected to being forced to conduct background checks of would-be handgun buyers in their areas.
In a five to four ruling the court agreed with the sheriff, writing for the majority, just as Antonin Scalia said, “The federal government may not command the state’s officers to administer or enforce a federal regulatory program. Such commands are fundamentally incompatible with our constitutional system of dual sovereignty.” Justice Paul Stevens dissented on behalf of four justices. He wrote “There is not a clause, sentence, or paragraph in the entire text of the Constitution of the United States that supports the proposition that a local police officer can ignore a command contained in a statute enacted by Congress.”
In another case involving state powers the High Court said that the state of Kansas may continue to confine some violent sex offenders in mental hospitals after they have served their criminal sentences.
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act–passed by Congress and signed by the President in 1993–was at issue in another decision. It centered on a dispute between the city government of Boerne, Texas, and a Catholic Church that wanted to expand in defiance of local historic preservation laws. The Church challenged the zoning restrictions, citing the expanded protections for religion granted by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The case touched on two major areas of constitutional law: the separation of powers and the proper relationship between church and state. In a six to three ruling the court struck down the act, saying Congress did not have the power to give religion a higher level of protection than the Supreme Court, itself, had previously ruled was necessary. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, saying, “Congress does not enforce a constitutional right by changing what the right is. It has been given the power to enforce, not the power to determine what constitutes a constitutional violation.”
Yet another case took on the separation of church and state directly. In a five to four decision the court said the New York Public School System may send some of its teachers into parochial schools to teach remedial classes to needy children.
Finally, one of the most closely watched cases of the term tested the constitutionality of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. The law makes it a crime to transmit indecent material on the Internet, where children might see it. The case tested the application of a 200-year-old constitutional right, the freedom of speech, to a new medium, the Internet. In a seven to two ruling the Supreme Court said Congress had violated adults’ freedom of speech in legislating such a sweeping prohibition. Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said, “The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship.”