The Last Word (This Term) from the Supreme Court

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The U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.

A victory for big government, a victory for big business and a victory for immigrants in big trouble: Thursday’s Supreme Court rulings covered a lot of ground.

The opinions, which are the final three of the Court’s 2000-2001 session, highlight razor-thin majority margins (two of the three rulings were 5-4) and reignite debate over the fate of the Court if one or more of its members should retire this year.

A splintered decision on land development

In a sharply divided opinion, the Court ruled that a Rhode Island man does have the right to challenge the government's refusal to develop marshland property. Property owners everywhere should keep their rejoicing to a minimum, however. While the law provides landowners with financial recourse if the government's acquisition of their property somehow deprives them of income, the majority ruled this was not the case here. As is fairly typical of this Court, the Justices were eager to discount broader implications of their ruling, concentrating instead on the individual case. Here the Court ruled against Anthony Palazzolo, arguing that since he was permitted to build a "substantial" house on his land, he did not lose significant income. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, "Palazzolo failed to establish a deprivation of all economic value, for it is undisputed that the parcel retains significant worth for the construction of a residence."

Big tobacco savors the taste of a win

The federal government's ban and restrictions on cigarette ads and packaging are broad enough, the Court ruled 5-4, and trump any state attempts to enforce stricter rules. As a result of the ruling in favor of tobacco giant Philip Morris, Massachusetts will have to dump its plans to ban cigarette ads near playgrounds and schools.

Taking the ruling a step further, a majority also sided with the tobacco company's free speech arguments, ruling the state could not place restrictions on outdoor advertisements. States may regulate ads inside stores, however.

Court watchers are particularly interested in the dynamics of this opinion, which drew dissent from almost every Justice on one point or another. The varying opinions within the official opinion, legal analysts say, indicates serious ideological rifts — and a fundamental lack of cohesion — on this issue.

Immigrants may not be jailed indefinitely

In its second decision this week on immigrant rights, the Court ruled 5-4 that legal aliens who have committed (and served time for) felony crimes may not be held in government custody without a release date. Civil rights and immigrant advocacy groups applauded the ruling, which affects around 3,000 immigrants who are stranded in the U.S. after serving time for felonies, and whose countries either will not admit them or no longer exist. The Court's decision ensures that deportable aliens are not held in prisons after their sentences are fulfilled. "We believe that an alien's liberty interest is, at the least, strong enough to raise a serious question as to whether… the Constitution permits detention that is indefinite and potentially permanent," Justice Stephen Breyer wrote for the court. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor joined the Court's liberal bloc (Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, Breyer and Souter) in the majority.