DURING the Supreme Court's 1992-93 term, which ended this week, the justices handed down potentially important rulings in areas ranging from redistricting to church-state relations. But the term was as notable for what the court did not do as for what it accomplished.
The justices approached controversial issues a few times but didn't issue broad-ranging opinions or provide much guidance to lower courts. And they didn't appear to establish any new directions on major issues.
"It was not a term in which the court saw fit to be bold or innovative," says A.E. (Dick) Howard, a law professor at the University of Virginia. "The court has not crystallized or focused our understanding of major issues. This term has been characterized by marking time or catching breath."
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, if confirmed as expected, will join a court in internal flux. The term's major development, court watchers say, was the disintegration of what appeared last year to be a three-member centrist bloc consisting of Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, David Souter, and Anthony Kennedy.
This term, Justice Souter steered to the left, often joining dissenting opinions with Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, was anchored more firmly in the conservative camp, providing the winning vote in a decision that questioned the constitutionality of voting districts designed to increase minority representation.
"I don't think the centrist bloc ever really existed," says Michael McConnell, a law professor at the University of Chicago. "Now it's plain that it doesn't exist."
If a centrist bloc has proved chimerical, so has the notion of a conservative majority that many saw emerging in the late 1980s. On most hot-button issues, it turns out, there's no working majority at all. The chief exception has been in the criminal-justice area, where the court has maintained a narrow reading of the rights of the accused.
"The court is, on the whole, quite hostile to criminal defendants' rights," says David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor. "That has shown up in procedural cases, where they have limited the right to have constitutional claims heard in federal courts."
Outside the criminal-justice area, few trends are discernible in the 107 signed decisions the court issued last term. Some recent rulings even show the court going in different directions.
For instance, the court seemed to strike a blow against free speech …