Okla. Supreme Court Decisions Run Political Gamut

Article excerpt

Although it ended with a bang - recognition of an individual Second Amendment right to own guns - the just-concluded U.S. Supreme Court term is not easy for Oklahoma court watchers to characterize.

Business won some important rounds, but did not carry the session as it did last term.

Employees also prevailed in some major cases this term.

The court carved out another situation in which the death penalty does not apply, and allowed Guantanamo detainees to challenge their imprisonments in American courts.

Joseph Thai, a professor at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, said Justice Anthony Kennedy, often seen as a swing vote since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, wrote two of the court's most-significant opinions this term, and was in the majority on a third.

He said Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in the Guantanamo case and in a decision in which the court axed state laws, including Oklahoma's, which assess the death penalty in child-rape cases.

Thai co-authored an amicus brief in the case.

The court held that capital punishment violates the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment in cases dealing with crimes against people that do not result in death or are not intended to result in death.

The court previously turned down application of the death penalty in cases involving minors and mentally retarded perpetrators.

Kennedy voted with the majority in last week's decision that ruled unconstitutional a District of Columbia ban on handguns.

"He was in more dissents this term than last term, but not in the major cases," Thai said of Kennedy.

Last term, he said, the court issued solidly conservative decisions and issued many rulings in favor of business.

"This term, I think the court, except for the big cases, stepped more carefully, and was more conscious of appearing unified and more moderate," he said.

The court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is still conservative, he said, but issues some less-conservative rulings.

"It was pretty clear that it sought to compromise," Thai said.

Last term, he said, business scored a dozen or so solid victories that resulted in criticism from some commentators.

Thai said those critiques may have prompted justices such as Roberts and Samuel Alito to work harder this term to see the other side in business cases, including a couple of key age and racial discrimination cases involving retaliation claims, in which the court ruled in workers' favor.

Thai said another major win for employees was a case in which the court said workers do not have to file the exact, required document in order to lodge a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as long as they give notice in a sufficient form.

He called that functional, common-sense approach "a big contrast to the narrow, formalistic approach that the court adopted last year."

"Those little victories for the little guy help to contrast this term and last term's big victories for business," Thai said.

Business did come out on top in some big cases, he said. …