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Last Updated: Thursday, 26 June, 2003, 07:14 GMT 08:14 UK
Divided US court reflects divided nation
BBC News Online's Steve Schifferes
By Steve Schifferes
BBC News Online at the Supreme Court in Washington

On Thursday the Supreme Court ended an historic session in which it announced key decisions on civil rights, free speech, and gay rights. But its deeply split decisions reflect a wide cultural divide in American society.

Gay men (generic)
Very few states still ban homosexual intercourse officially
The last case decided by the Court this year overturns a Texas law that makes sodomy illegal between gay couples, but not married couples, on the grounds that there is no compelling state interest in regulating the private acts of individuals.

In a split 6-3 decision, it also reversed the Supreme Court's own ruling of 18 years ago

In the last decade, public opinion has shifted on this issue, with a narrow majority now supporting such a change in the law.

The decision is likely to make illegal the laws in the 13 states that still regulate sodomy, and provide an important assurance for the 600,000 openly gay households in the country.

The court has taken sides in the culture war
Justice Antonin Scalia
According to the lawyer for the plaintiffs, Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, it could also have broader implications in preventing discrimination against gays because of disapproval of their sexual conduct.

But the decision infuriated Conservative church groups, who vowed to fight the ruling- and the conservative members of the Court.

Deeply divided

In a stinging dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia said that "the court has taken sides in the culture war, departing from its role assuring as neutral observer that the democratic rules of engagement are observed."

He warned that the ruling would open the way for the court to legalise gay marriage, and said that it should be up to the people through legislation, not the courts, to regulate matters of moral conduct.

And Justice Scalia warned that the judgement also lead to renewed questions about the wisdom of Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that allowed women the right to have abortions.

It is yet another example of how in the past few years the Court has become a lightening rod for the fierce debates over social issues that are deeply splitting the country.

And with some justices contemplating retirement, it has already led to political advertisements over the choice of a successor, which is up to the President, with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Conservative shift

The Supreme Court is the third arm of the government in the US, and its decisions - on such issues as abortion rights, birth control, and school integration - often have more influence on the lives of individual citizens than actions by the president or Congress.

Supreme Court 1 April 2003
Civil rights campaigners protested outside the Supreme Court

In recent years, the mood of the court has grown more conservative, as it sought to limit the rights it granted in previous decades to crime suspects, free speech advocates and minority groups.

But the battle has been fierce, with many judgements decided by a single vote.

In the most important case of the session, the Supreme Court upheld by 5-4 the right of universities to use race as a factor in admission, upholding the broad thrust of its last ruling on the issue in 1978.

But it ruled against one of the programmes used by the University of Michigan to increase minority enrolment.

And the court made it clear that any affirmative action programmes have to be limited in time and scope.

Diversity - especially to widen the recruitment of elites - is still seen as important goal in the United States.

State v individual

But in other cases, the court reduced the rights of individuals and increased the power of the government.

By a narrow majority, it upheld a federal law that requires libraries to regulate access to the internet for children by installing filters on computers providing that service.

It has previously overruled two earlier proposals to regulate child pornography on the grounds that it would restrict free speech.

In this case, two justices who supported the restriction said that it would only be constitutional if adults could ask the library to turn off the filters.

And in other important cases, it upheld the right of states to imprison people for life if they committed three crimes, even if some were petty crimes; and to restrict access to public housing projects by making the streets off-limits to trespassers.

The court also upheld the right of the president to negotiate foreign treaties, overturning another California law that sought to give additional rights of disclosure to the families of Holocaust victims who may have had an insurance policy that they were never able to cash in.

Swing vote

The court's dilemma on many of these issues echoes the political divisions within the United States, which now follow cultural rather than economic lines.

The culturally conservative, who oppose abortion and gun control, are hoping that President Bush will be able to appoint new more conservative justices to the court if he wins a second term.

That could be particularly important over the issue of abortion, on which the court did not rule this term, but which has been supported by a narrow majority.

It had been expected that one or two justices - including the key swing vote in the abortion and affirmative action cases, Sandra Day O'Connor - might retire this term.

However, it now appears they are staying on - not least to hear a crucial appeal early in the next Supreme Court term over the constitutionality of a new campaign reform finance law designed to reduce the influence of money on the political process.

In an unrelated case, the court this term upheld the principle that Congress can regulate the amount of money companies can give to candidates.

But there are strong free speech objections to the new law, which seeks to limit campaign advertising by pressure groups.

Any decision overthrowing the new law, which came into effect just after the November 2002 congressional elections, could have a huge effect on the 2004 presidential election.

University race case divides US
20 Jun 03  |  Education
US porn-filter law upheld
23 Jun 03  |  Americas
Campaign finance reformers' plea
09 May 03  |  Americas
US Supreme Court hears gay case
26 Mar 03  |  Americas

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