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Conservatives Hold Edge on US Supreme Court

Conservative judges now dominate the U.S. Supreme Court. In the first full term since two of President Bush's appointees took their seats, rulings by the high court turned robustly to the right. Still, the nine-member panel is closely divided and not always reliably conservative. VOA's Jim Fry reports.

It was the first full term for President Bush's two conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court -- Associate Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Civil libertarian Ralph Neas of People for the American Way, which led the liberal opposition to the two appointments, says, "The court has moved far to the right."

But conservative legal scholar Naomi Rao disagrees with his analysis. "I think it's really too early to tell exactly what is going to happen with this court."

The high court decided 24 cases by a margin of just one vote and conservatives prevailed in 19 of them. Roberts and Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas were joined by Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Among those rulings:
- The court upheld a ban on a form of late term abortion.
- Justices made it easier for prosecutors to remove jurors who might oppose the death penalty.
- They limited local school districts' ability to use race to assign students in desegregation efforts.

Law professor Jonathan Turley has followed the court, written about it and commented on its decisions for two decades. "These are young justices -- Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito -- and they have shown that they have got a stable five-justice majority."

Moderates and liberals on the court won five of the one-vote margins. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, John Paul Stevens, Steven Breyer and David Souter were joined in those rulings by Kennedy.

In one example, they ruled the federal government can limit car emissions in order to control gasses that contribute to global warming.

Kennedy -- on the winning side in every close case -- has become the court's crucial swing vote. But Turley says he is tacking rightward. "In many ways, Justice Kennedy has sort of run home. He has become a more reliable conservative."

In their confirmation hearings, Chief Justice Roberts and Alito both told the U.S. Senate they were inclined to follow the legal doctrine called "stare decisis" -- a principle based on established legal precedent.

Some conservatives say the Roberts court has not boldly overturned precedents established by a more liberal court two or more decades ago. And Rao, who clerked for Thomas, says both he and Scalia appear irritated and unhappy.

"Some of the concurring opinions -- especially the ones that Justice Scalia wrote -- were rather angry and very critical of the chief justice's 'pose' of minimalism," says Rao.

The court made an abrupt turn on two cases involving civil liberties. It tightened limits on student speech -- allowing a school administrator to punish high school students who unfurled a banner interpreted as celebrating drug use.

And justices limited the ability of schools to assign students on the basis of race in efforts to integrate public schools. It is a decision that could affect classrooms across the U.S. "Literally, there are hundreds -- if not thousands -- of ways race is used. All of those are now suspect and so it can mean a very significant change,” Turley said.

Change is what President Bush promised on the court. Even as his popularity and power now wane, Mr. Bush's new justices will guide the law for a generation or more.

Turley adds, "He changed the Supreme Court. The court changed the law and that changed the country. That is a legacy by any definition of the term."

The fight now moves into the political arena as voters decide whether a Democrat or Republican will succeed Mr. Bush in the White House. Ralph Neas says liberals will push for change. "We think the Supreme Court's future is the most important issue facing America in 2008 in these elections."

It is the sort of activism conservatives practiced over three decades in their successful campaign to wrest control of America's highest court.