Supreme Court More Harmonious Under Roberts

The final gavel has landed, the last oyez-oyez sounded for the summer. So how did the new Roberts Supreme Court stack up? Despite this week's contentious decisions on Texas redistricting plans and the legal rights of enemy combatants at Guantánamo, the court struck a more harmonious note overall. Under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts, the court handed down unanimous decisions in 37 of its 82 cases and agreed on the outcome in another nine, according to an analysis by Thomas Goldstein, who heads the Supreme Court practice at the Washington law firm of Akin, Gump. "There's a combination of a new chief justice bringing people together and also the court deciding to duck hard questions while the court is in transition," says Goldstein.

In one instance, court watchers expected a firestorm over a New Hampshire abortion case heard last fall. Instead, the court decided it unanimously on the narrowest of grounds. This term there were also fewer than average 5-4 splits. "We saw more clarity from the court," says Rebecca Cady, a fellow at Georgetown University's Supreme Court Institute, who also compiled an overview of this year's term. Except for a few of the most contentious cases— Hamdan v. Rumsfeld , Texas redistricting and voting rights—the justices penned fewer separate dissents, even when they disagreed, Cady says.

The numbers also clearly chart the effect of swing voter Sandra Day O'Connor's departure. "You can see the court taking a demonstrable step to the right," says Goldstein. O'Connor's replacement, Samuel Alito, sided with the conservative bloc more often than O'Connor would have. "Liberal members lost in about five cases they would have won if O'Connor were on the court," says Goldstein. Without O'Connor on the bench, Anthony Kennedy became the swing voter to watch—he was in the majority eight times in 5-4 splits. And although Alito sided solidly with conservatives (he only voted in 38 cases), he agreed with Kennedy more often than Antonin Scalia, putting him in the center of the court's conservative quintet.

In past terms, Scalia developed a reputation as a frequent (and often angry) dissenter. This time it was John Paul Stevens who showed off his independent streak with 19 dissenting votes (Stephen Breyer was second with 16; Scalia had a modest 10). At age 86, Stevens also authored the most opinions of any justice: 32.

Interest groups on both ends of the ideological spectrum found plenty to complain about. Predictably, liberals mourned the loss of O'Connor. "Americans' rights and liberties are already less secure after just one year of the Roberts Court," said People For the American Way President Ralph G. Neas. "One more ultraconservative justice would mean a 'lost generation' for the Constitution." But conservatives—who've long derided Kennedy's centrist streak—weren't pleased either. "This court is still a liberal, activist court that issues decisions based on politics, personal preference, ideology, perceived international or humanitarian ideals," complained Wendy Long, counsel to the conservative Judicial Confirmation Network.

The Roberts Court will likely have more time to gel over the next few years. Unless a justice faces health problems, no one else is expected to resign before the 2008 election. Next fall the court has already agreed to hear cases on partial-birth abortion, affirmative action and environmental protection. That's a lineup that could put any newfound comity to the test.

Supreme Court More Harmonious Under Roberts | News