Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Court's Balance Expected to Shift

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Court's Balance Expected to Shift

Article excerpt

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court's 5-4 commitment to giving states more power at the federal government's expense grew more intense in its 1998-99 term.

The hardening split, identical to the court's rift over the role of race in American life, emphasized the enormous impact the next president could have with just one appointment.

The just-completed term saw Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, who wield great power from court's ideological center, join the more conservative Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas to dramatically enhance states' rights by eroding Congress' power.

Their more liberal colleagues -- John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer -- joined in dissent as a decadelong trend continued.

The same division developed in previous terms in a series of rulings that curtailed racial affirmative action when election districts are drawn and government money is spent.

"The next presidential election means a great deal for the Supreme Court's future," said Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor. "The current cast of justices is so closely balanced in terms of ideology that whoever gets elected in 2000 could be deciding the court's philosophy for the next decade or more."

None of the court's members appears to be contemplating imminent retirement. Stevens is 79, and Rehnquist will turn 75 before the court returns to the bench in October.

In three rulings, the court invoked states' sovereign immunity in sweeping terms to shield them from being sued by individuals or businesses who claim a state or one of its agencies has violated some federal right.

An act of Congress could not trump such immunity, the court said as it banned, among others, private lawsuits against states to enforce patent, trademark or copyright protections.

The court's deference to state power was not absolute, however. O'Connor and Kennedy joined the four more liberal justices as the court banned California, and by extension all other states, from paying lower welfare benefits to newcomers than longtime residents. …

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