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
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 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
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 when it ruled in Alexander v. …