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Supreme Court Term Left Door Open for Future Disputes

By the close of the Supreme Court's term Thursday, the justices made landmark decisions on cases regarding gun ownership, the death penalty and the legal rights of detainees. Legal experts weigh the rulings and what they indicate about future court battles.

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    The justices ended their year yesterday with a landmark ruling on gun rights, one of several decisions that could impact all Americans. Here to give us an overview is NewsHour regular Marcia Coyle of the National Law Journal.

    And another year for the books, Marcia. What are the arguments and decisions that really were the highlights of this year?

  • MARCIA COYLE, National Law Journal:

    OK, Ray, first, the court disposed of 67 cases with opinions on the merits. These are the highlights, but it's by no means the entire body of the court's work.

    First, under the broad heading of constitutional decisions — as you mentioned, guns — the court held that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess firearms and to use them for lawful purposes, such as self-defense in the home.

    Guantanamo Bay, the court, for the third time in four years, rebuffed the Bush administration's legal arguments about the detainees there. The court held that those detainees have a right to challenge the legality of their detentions in federal court through habeas corpus petitions.

    Death penalty, three big decisions. First, the court struck down Louisiana's law imposing the death penalty for rape of a child. The court said the death penalty should be reserved for the most serious crimes, and that would be crimes that end in the death of the victim.

    The court upheld the state of Kentucky's three-drug lethal injection protocol for carrying out executions. The court held that this protocol did not violate the cruel and unusual punishment clause of the Eighth Amendment. The court, however, did leave the door open to challenges to other lethal injection protocols in other states.

    This case also marked the first time Justice Stevens announced that he would find the death penalty unconstitutional in the next appropriate case. He felt that the costs of the death penalty and the fact that it no longer served the purposes for which we have it made it unconstitutional.

    And, finally, an international death penalty case. The court held that the Bush administration could not fulfill an international treaty obligation by ordering state courts to review the death penalty — the death sentences and convictions of about 50 Mexican nationals on death row because they were denied access to their consuls after their arrests.