Supreme Court’s 2003-2004 Term Crucial to Constitution

PFAWF Publishes Analysis of Term’s Impact on Rights, Liberties, and Legal Protections

The just-completed Supreme Court term was memorable for a number of decisions that protected important civil rights principles and constitutional liberties, according to an end-of-term analysis published today by People For the American Way Foundation. The report also notes that this term slowed the momentum of the Supreme Court’s recent “states’ rights” jurisprudence.

“In many ways, this Supreme Court term was a good one for the Constitution and for those who depend on its protections,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “Most importantly, the Court made clear that the President is not above the law and cannot unilaterally suspend the Constitution, even when the nation is at war.”

The PFAWF report reviews about 30 cases decided in this term, covering civil liberties and the war on terror, federalism and states’ rights, voting rights and other civil rights issues, religious liberty, free expression, access to information and access to justice, workers and consumer protection, environmental protection, campaign finance, and other constitutional and human rights issues. It does not discuss death penalty or other criminal law decisions.

While eight Supreme Court justices resoundingly rejected the Bush Administration’s claims to virtually unchecked power to detain American citizens and others without any due process rights or oversight role for the courts, many other important rulings were decided by narrow 5-4 or 6-3 margins, highlighting the major impact that future nominees to the High Court will have on our Constitution and laws.

Among the major rulings decided by 5-4 or 6-3 margins:

  • the ruling that Guantanamo detainees’ claims challenging their detentions can be heard by federal courts;
  • a decision upholding the right of disabled persons to sue state agencies for damages under the Americans with Disabilities Act for denying them access to the courts;
  • a ruling affirming a preliminary injunction against a federal law restricting free expression on the Internet;
  • a holding that lawsuits challenging state tax laws as unconstitutional can be brought in federal court. One more vote for the dissenters’ view would have completely barred federal courts from deciding challenges to the constitutionality of state tax laws, including laws violating the Establishment Clause or the Equal Protection Clause’s prohibition against racial discrimination.
  • a case in which five justices indicated that blatantly political gerrymandering can be challenged as unconstitutional.
  • a case upholding the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to take action against damaging air pollution by industry when state agencies improperly fail to do so.

People For the American Way Foundation Vice President and Legal Director Elliot Mincberg noted that, with the exception of the Internet case, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas both disagreed with the majority in each of these cases.

“While there are remaining questions about how some of these rulings will be implemented,” said Mincberg, “there is no question that Americans’ rights and legal protections would have fared far worse with one or two more Justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas on the Court.”

In fact, a recent PFAWF report, Courting Disaster 2004, documents that adding just one or two more justices like Scalia and Thomas to the Court would threaten to overturn more than 100 Supreme Court precedents going back to the New Deal.

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