U.S. Supreme Court Decisions
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In striking down criminal sodomy laws in a case from Texas, the court issued a stunning declaration of constitutional liberty for gay men and lesbians. While the political, social and legal ramifications of the 6-to-3 decision may take years to play out, there was no doubt that Lawrence v. Texas, No. 02-102, was a constitutional watershed.
Justice Kennedy's majority opinion, overturning the court's 1986 decision in Bowers v. Hardwick and declaring that gays are "entitled to respect for their private lives" as a matter of constitutional due process, was joined by Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer. Justice O'Connor concurred separately in an opinion based on the guarantee of equal protection. Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.
The court preserved affirmative action in university admissions, upholding by a 5-to-4 vote the "holistic" and "individualized" approach used by the University of Michigan Law School. Justice O'Connor's majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, No. 02-241, found that the program, both in its operation and in its diversity rationale, comported with the controlling opinion by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in the Bakke case 25 years ago. The majority expressed the expectation that affirmative action would no longer be needed 25 years from now. Chief Justice Rehnquist dissented, along with Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas.
The University of Michigan's affirmative action program for its undergraduate college was unconstitutional, the court ruled by a 6-to-3 vote, because its awarding of 20 points on a 150-point admissions scale to black, Hispanic and American-Indian applicants was too mechanistic and quota-like. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the majority in Gratz v. Bollinger, No. 02-516, joined by Justices O'Connor, Kennedy, Scalia and Thomas. Justice Breyer concurred separately. Justices Ginsburg and Souter, who dissented, would have upheld the policy, while the third dissenter, Justice Stevens, said only that he believed the court lacked jurisdiction over the case.
The court overturned a federal racketeering judgment against a coalition of anti-abortion groups that conducted a campaign of disrupting and blockading abortion clinics in the 1980's. The National Organization for Women and two abortion clinics had brought a successful suit for damages and an injunction based on the Hobbs Act, which outlaws obstructing commerce "by robbery or extortion."
But by an 8-to-1 vote, the court said that while the protesters' behavior might well have amounted to coercion, which the Hobbs Act does not cover, it did not fit the legal definition of extortion, which requires actually obtaining another's property by force or threat. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote for the court in Scheidler v. National Organization for Women, No. 01-1118, while Justice Stevens dissented.
The justices decided five First Amendment cases and — unusually for this speech-protective court — rejected the constitutional claim in all five.
By a vote of 6 to 3, the court upheld the Children's Internet Protection Act, which requires public libraries to install antipornography filters on all computers providing Internet access, as a condition of receiving federal subsidies and grants. Librarians may unblock certain sites at the request of adult patrons, but because the law had been blocked from taking effect, it is unclear how it will work in practice. Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote a plurality opinion for himself and Justices O'Connor, Thomas and Scalia, while Justices Kennedy and Breyer concurred on narrower grounds. Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg dissented in United States v. American Library Association, No. 02-361.
In striking down a Virginia cross-burning statute, the court ruled that states may make it a crime to burn a cross as long as the law clearly gives prosecutors the burden of proving that the act was intended as a threat and not as a form of symbolic expression. The First Amendment permits the government to single out cross-burning as a "particularly virulent form of intimidation," Justice O'Connor wrote for the court in Virginia v. Black, No. 01-1107. The dissenters, Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Kennedy, objected that the decision permitted the state to single out one especially potent symbol for criminal treatment.
Finally, an important commercial speech case fizzled unexpectedly on the final day of the term when the court dismissed Nike's appeal in a California case imposing potential liability on the company for supposed misstatements in support of its overseas employment practices. The fact that the suit against Nike had not yet gone to trial evidently persuaded the court that the case, Nike v. Kasky, No. 02-575, was not yet appropriate for decision. Justices Breyer, O'Connor, and Kennedy dissented from the dismissal.