By the end of last June, the US Supreme Court had decided a
raft of life-and-death cases that touched millions of Americans and
gave the court a confident new luster in its place among the
federal branches. This year, however, the high court heads into its
final months - usually a time of much anticipation - with few
national issues to weigh, and with a low-key, businesslike demeanor.
This spring, technical issues and rulings for smaller
interest groups are occupying the justices - not grand
constitutional questions. This doesn't mean the court has lost its
luster. Actually, experts say a hiatus from tough cases and the
scrutiny that goes with them may add to the image of the court as
an institution of high and lofty purpose.
Nor is the year a write-off. This month the justices will
hear the two cases most likely to characterize this court term: A
"line item veto" case could give the White House significant new
powers. Also, the most dynamic of four sexual-harassment cases
taken this year comes up, something that could change the law by
making harassment more a civil-rights claim than a workplace claim.
Still, compared with last term, the court is in a Sargasso
Sea of calm. Last April the justices had before them 12 hard
constitutional problems - cases like a right to an assisted
suicide, religious freedoms for minority faiths, the powers of
Congress, separation of church and state, White House immunity, and
smut and censorship on the Internet.
This year contains no cases of that magnitude. "I can't name
a single Supreme Court decision this year that has important
constitutional ramifications for the nation," says Evan Caminker, a
law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and
former clerk to the late Justice William Brennan.
Last October, it seemed the high court would make history on
race and affirmative action this year. A case out of Piscataway,
N.J., could have resulted in a five-vote majority eliminating the
formula that allows race to be considered as a factor in making
employment decisions for teachers and other public servants. Also,
the high court was weighing whether to take a challenge to a
sweeping referendum in California (Proposition 209) that would
eliminate race as a factor in schools, jobs, and state agencies.
But without comment the court refused to hear Prop. 209, then
last fall a civil-rights coalition settled the Piscataway case
before it was scheduled to be argued. …