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Key Decisions Mark Shift in Supreme Court

The Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, ended its term with several 5-4 rulings addressing cases about the freedom of speech and the use of race in school enrollment. Legal experts evaluate the term.

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  • MARGARET WARNER:

    The Supreme Court term that just ended under Chief Justice John Roberts was marked by key 5-4 rulings that cheered conservatives, including overturning two race-based school desegregation programs, upholding the federal ban on a late-term abortion procedure, and striking down a key provision of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. Just one high-profile case, directing the EPA to consider regulating greenhouse gas emissions, went 5-4 for the liberal, in that case pro-environment side.

    The one wild card among the justices was Justice Anthony Kennedy, and he leaned more often right than left. Joining us to assess the term are two professors who teach constitutional law, among other areas: Jonathan Adler, who's at Case Western Reserve University School of Law; and Goodwin Liu, from the University of California, Berkeley, Boalt Hall Law School.

    And welcome to you both, professors.

    And, Professor Liu, beginning with you, is it fair to now say this is a conservative court?

    GOODWIN LIU, University of California, Berkeley: Margaret, I think it is fair to say that. I think that, in a broad range of cases, especially the cases that split 5-4, the court leaned in a more conservative direction this term. And this is largely the result of the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor with Justice Samuel Alito.

    If you look at the campaign finance case, the abortion case, the schools ruling yesterday, all of those cases Justice Alito joined the five-justice conservative majority, whereas we would know from some things that Justice O'Connor has written in the past that she might have been inclined to join the dissenters. And so the switch there, the replacement of Justice O'Connor with Justice Alito, has yielded big dividends, I think, for the conservative position.

  • MARGARET WARNER:

    Professor Adler, do you share that view? And if it is a "conservative," quote, unquote, court, conservative in what sense?

  • JONATHAN ADLER, Case Western Reserve University:

    Well, I think it is a slightly more conservative court now that Justice Alito has replaced Justice O'Connor, but I think it's only slightly more so. This is a conservative court that is moving in very small steps. This is not a court that has shown any willingness to revolutionize the law or to take broad, sweeping steps to unmake years of doctrine.

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