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Court in Review

Gwen Ifill talks with National Law Journal Supreme Court correspondent Marcia Coyle about the end of the Supreme Court's session.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    The high court wrapped up its term last week, issuing a total of 79 decisions on topics ranging from the Presidential election and voting rights law, to federalism, free speech and immigrants' rights. 26 of these cases, 33% decided by votes of 5-4.

    We get an overview of the term now from Marcia Coyle, Supreme Court correspondent and Washington bureau chief for the National Law Journal. NewsHour regular Jan Crawford Greenburg continues on maternity leave. Marcia, "Bush versus Gore" was the big case that put the cloud over the court that influenced everything that happened next. But there was a lot else that went on in the court this term?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Absolutely, Gwen. I don't think the court could have done anything to eclipse "Bush V. Gore" — it had such a huge political impact. But if you take the court at its word, and it said it was deciding "Bush V. Gore" on its fact for this case only, long-term it won't have as much impact as some of the other cases the court took up. They took up cases in a broad number of areas from federalism, to free speech, to criminal law.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The court did seem in some ways to be all over the map with all of these decisions it made and a lot of the decisions it didn't make. Let's try to break it down a little bit. You mentioned federalism cases.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    I think one of the enduring legacies of the Rehnquist Court will be under the rubric of federalism — how five members of the court consistently are viewing the power allotment under the Constitution and under that the court had two important cases this term.

    The first case involved the Americans with Disabilities Act. The court found that states could not be sued by their employees for discrimination against the disabled. The court said the Congress went too far in applying the ADA to the states because there was no clear record of evidence that the states had participated in the discrimination problem.

    The second case was more of a regulatory case than a constitutional case. The court found that a regulation that was issued by the Army Corps of Engineers that allowed it under the Clean Water Act to regulate isolated interstate ponds, or in some cases, wetlands, was also excessive; that the Clean Water Act did not authorize that regulation, so it's a continuing trend at the court to rein in the power of Congress.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. The court also spoke a lot on free speech– not always the same kinds of free speech.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's right. The court every term has roughly half a dozen First Amendment cases. It did also in this term. Those cases dealt with commercial speech, religious speech, political speech, press speech, and in almost every case, the court came out in favor of the person speaking and struck down restrictions on speech — with one major exception– political speech– and this was the Colorado campaign expenditure case.

    Here the court still feels that you need restrictions on coordinated expenses between a political party and a candidate in order to avoid corruption of the political process. But this court has for sometime been a very strong First Amendment court.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let's go from the First Amendment to the Fourth Amendment. Privacy rights: A lot of different cases with incredibly different outcomes?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    I counted seven fourth amendment cases, and I would say that four of them came out in favor of law enforcement and three in favor of the individual challenging what the police were doing. The court… The cases that law enforcement lost were very significant. The court was looking at the warrant requirement under the Fourth Amendment that protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures.

    The Court said essentially, "police, you need a warrant if you are going to train a heat detection device on someone's home to see if they are growing marijuana. You cannot do drug testing of pregnant women without their consent. You need to get consent or a warrant. And, finally, you can't set up random roadblocks ad stop cars and have the cars tested by drug sniffing dogs. You need a warrant."

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Very complicated. Okay. Civil rights– this is one of the issues which we look to the court to try to resolve conflicts, but the court also… How did they rule on these cases?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Here again, just as in the Fourth Amendment and the First Amendment areas, you saw the court going both ways essentially. There was a big defeat for the civil rights community in a Title 6 case involving Alabama's English-only driver's license test. The court essentially closed the door to the courts that had been opened for many years that allowed private citizens to bring suits against state programs that discriminated…

    That had a discriminatory impact on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin. So that was a big loss, but there were victories. There was a victory in a North Carolina voting rights case. The court approved the drawing of a congressional district that had been attacked for years, finally saying that race was not the predominant factor in the drawing of that district.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The court also ruled in favor of golf carts on the golf course.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes. This was in an Americans with disability act.. It involved Casey Martin, who wanted his disability accommodated by the PGA golf tour. The court found he should be accommodated, but I would like to say one thing: That was not a question of whether Casey Martin was disabled, and the court in recent cases involving the definition of disability has taken a pretty narrow conservative view. We might learn more of that next term when they take up a case involving carpal tunnel syndrome and whether that can be a disability.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Why so many 5-4? We got used to sitting around this table and talking about this 5-4 decision and the way the court spirit split itself among its supposed conservative wing and liberal swing. Why so many 5-4 cases?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Well, the number is a fairly significant increase in, say, the last five to six terms. And it's hard to say why when you look at the kind of cases in which they split 5-4. We know in federalism decisions that they are almost always 5-4 because the five conservative members have an explicit view, a definite view of how the power should be drawn under the Constitution.

    But they are all over the map in other kinds of cases. They split 5-4 in a case involving a dispute between the federal government, Idaho and an Indian tribe over land submerged under a lake. So…

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Kennedy and O'Connor are always the tipping point of this?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    They are very key to how the court will come out in the most closely divided cases. The court is also taking fewer cases, so in a way the way that the 5-4 splits increase may be a product of fewer cases and cases that are much more difficult.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, the cases that the court did not take this session are as interesting as the cases it did take. It speaks to what is going to happen next term?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    Yes, it does. The court did not jump into… Right now there is a conflict among the lower courts and among universities as to how race can be considered in admissions policies. We expect that the court will face that question again in a case that may arrive at the court next term. The court also didn't take up a dispute over the display of Ten Commandments, a religion clause case. That may be back next term. The court will return to the issue of race next term with a case involving affirmative action, and that is one that will be closely watched.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    What about the death penalty?

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    That's also going to be back next term. The court is going to revisit the question of whether it's constitutional to execute the mentally retarded.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Okay. Well, thank you very much, Marcia Coyle.

  • MARCIA COYLE:

    You are very welcome.