Supreme Court Narrowly Protects Key Civil Rights and Liberties in 2004-2005 Term

Large number of 5-4 rulings underscores importance of future justices

In its most recent term, the Supreme Court generally protected key civil rights and liberties and disappointed those seeking to expand property rights and limit Congress’ power, but by narrow margins—that’s the conclusion of a new People For the American Way Foundation analysis of the Court’s non-criminal cases in the 2004-2005 term.

This term, which concluded Monday, was distinguished by a high number of rulings decided by narrow 5-4 margins (or 5-3 margins, due to the absence of Chief Justice William Rehnquist), highlighting the importance of future Supreme Court vacancies, the PFAWF analysis concludes. While many of these decisions protected fundamental rights and freedoms, some narrow decisions regarding access to justice and immigrant rights were disappointing.

“After reviewing the past year’s decisions, it is clear that once again, an almost evenly divided Court has generally stood up for Americans’ constitutional rights and legal protections—but just barely,” said People For the American Way Foundation President Ralph G. Neas. “The narrow margins of many of these decisions show just how fragile these protections are. If new justices are not committed to upholding these principles, Americans’ most fundamental rights and liberties will be at risk.”

Among the most important 5-4 decisions issued by the Supreme Court this term are:

  • a decision that people retaliated against for complaining about illegal sex discrimination can sue under federal law;
  • a decision affirming the constitutional principle of government neutrality toward religion and holding that it is unconstitutional for government to post the Ten Commandments in a court house in order to promote religion;
  • a decision that job practices that have the effect of discriminating based on age violate federal law;
  • a holding that foreign-flagged cruise ships in U.S. waters must abide by the Americans with Disabilities Act;
  • a ruling that federal courts will generally not second guess government decisions to use eminent domain power to acquire private property for public purposes.

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