As the Courtís year comes to a close, speculation is mounting as to whether one or more of the Justices will retire. (Any announcement to that effect is likely to come within the next few weeks.) And so Mondayís opinions were scrutinized just a bit more than usual, as court-watchers tried to tease out any trends or rifts: Who might be trying to send a last minute message? Whoís breaking ranks from their traditional allies?
With Bush in the White House, of course, members of the Courtís conservative wing are far more likely than their more liberal counterparts to step down. Reagan appointee Sandra Day OíConnor, who's 71, reportedly wants her replacement chosen by a Republican. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, a Nixon appointee, is 77, and also a possible candidate to step down. Also throw in John Paul Stevens, who is 81, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has successfully fought cancer in recent years, but whom some observers speculate may retire out of concern for her long-term health.
There were no outright surprises Monday, but it was interesting that Sandra Day OíConnor and Anthony Kennedy, who have emerged as the courtís key swing votes, took turns siding with the liberal wing of the Court. The presence of one swing vote, however, was generally decisive. A roundup of the decisions:
Score one for John McCain
The Arizona Senatorís pet cause, campaign finance reform, got a boost when the Court ruled 5-4 to uphold limits on so-called "coordinated" campaign contributions. Justices Souter, Ginsberg, OíConnor, Stevens and Breyer were in the majority. The decision means donations from political parties to specific candidates (generally for campaign expenditures like mass mailings and ads) are subject to Federal Election Commission guidelines, and thus limits can be placed on how much money is contributed. Any ripples from this ruling are likely to be more symbolic than practical; while campaign finance reform remains a hot topic in Washington, coordinated contributions make up only a tiny proportion of any candidateís coffers, and are dwarfed by the "soft money" contributions that McCain seeks to eliminate.
Freelancers gain control. Will research tools suffer?
The Court ruled 7-2, with Justices Stevens and Breyer dissenting, that freelance writers who sell their work to print media retain the right to decide if and when their articles are reprinted electronically. The decision, which at first blush appears a financial windfall for a growing population of freelancers, could wind up hurting the content of online research databases. Some media analysts are already predicting publishing companies may simply drop online content created by freelancers, rather than get involved in the complexities of electronic rights. If a writer refuses to grant electronic rights to a story, or a media company refuses to pay for stories, Internet users could be left trolling a diminished sea of information.
Turning away an NRA challenge
In a major blow to the National Rifle Association, the Court dismissed without comment the organizationís challenge to the FBIís system of keeping records on gun buyers. The NRA appealed a lower courtís ruling that the Justice Department could continue keeping information gathered from instant background checks on file for six months, rather than discarding it immediately, as the NRA requested. Because the Justices chose not to rule on this case, the federal appeals court decision will stand.
A break for legal immigrants
A slim Court majority stood up to an aggressively pro-deportation trend, ruling against the Justice Department and in favor of legal immigrants. The Justices ruled 5-4 that immigrants convicted of aggravated felonies must be granted court hearings before being deported. Currently, legal aliens are not permitted court reviews.