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Hamdan, Redistricting Rulings Mark New Roberts Court’s First Term

The U.S. Supreme Court marked the last week of its 2005-2006 term with major rulings on Guantanamo's military tribunals, texas redistricting, and Kansas' death penalty law. Four legal experts review the high court's decisions over the past year.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    It was the Supreme Court's inaugural term under Chief Justice John Roberts, the first new chief in two decades. The blockbuster ruling of this term, involving presidential power in time of war, didn't emerge until the final day last week.

    But, before then, the court issued 68 decisions on legal controversies, ranging from political redistricting to physician-assisted suicide, and from the death penalty and other criminal law matters to military recruitment on college campuses. The term was notable, too, for the midway replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by new justice Samuel Alito.

    We assess the term now with four longtime court watchers: in California, Douglas Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University Law School; and Kathleen Sullivan, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford University and former dean of its law school; and, here in Washington: Stuart Taylor, a columnist for The Legal Times and senior writer for "National Journal" magazine; and Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University and legal affairs editor at "The New Republic," and, I should say, author of a new book as well about the courts.

    Welcome to you all.

    If this is the beginning of the Roberts' era, Kathleen Sullivan, to what degree did he put a distinctive stamp on this court?

  • KATHLEEN SULLIVAN, Constitutional Law Center Director, Stanford University:

    Margaret, the term this year is best described as the Roberts conservative court in waiting. He was unable to put a clear stamp on the court in any new direction.

    And let's make no mistake about it. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito are very conservative. Justice Alito voted with the conservative bloc 15 percent more of the time than Justice O'Connor, whom he replaced.

    But, in the big decisions this term, Margaret, there was a real rebuke by the court to the extreme grab for executive power by the Bush administration in both the Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld case about Guantanamo and the Gonzales vs. Oregon case about physician-assisted suicide.

    And environmentalists got a reprieve in the big environmental case of the term, the case about the Clean Water Act, which still gave Congress a lot of power to protect the environment. So, in the big cases, the liberal bloc, plus Justice Kennedy, held to keep the court at a more moderate or liberal place than you might have expected.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Doug Kmiec, do you see it that way; he was really unable to put a clear stamp in this first year?

    DOUGLAS KMIEC, Professor of Constitutional Law, Pepperdine University Law School: Margaret, I think it's been a very successful year for the Roberts court.

    I think he told us what type of approach he would have in his confirmation proceeding. He said he viewed his role as that of an umpire calling balls and strikes, that he had a conception of the judicial role that was carefully limited to cases or controversies in deciding particular cases.

    And that's what he came in with: an attitude of judicial humility, an attitude that respects precedent, and a great deal of charm and collegiality. And while, yes, he didn't get everything he wanted, and there were some significant disappointments at the end of the term, he also demonstrated a capacity to work with the court as a whole.

    There were a higher number of unanimous opinions this year than previous years. There was a declining number of divided opinions. I think all of this augurs very well for the future of the court under John Roberts and the work of Sam Alito as well.

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