June 29, 2005

Top court term a difficult one for Rehnquist

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court's newly endedterm was a difficult one for Chief Justice William Rehnquist,with his health problems and a number of major rulingsrejecting the conservative legal views he has long espoused.

Soon after the term began in October, Rehnquist wasdiagnosed with thyroid cancer, raising questions about how muchlonger the 80-year-old would be able to stay on the nine-memberhigh court and speculation about who might replace him.

After undergoing a tracheotomy, radiation and chemotherapy,he eventually returned to the bench, but appeared weak and hisraspy, wheezy voice was often hard to understand.

When the term ended on Monday, Rehnquist announced that thecourt would be in recess until October and gave no word on hisfuture plans. He could retire at any time.

Rehnquist has led the court for nearly 19 years. Before hewas elevated to chief justice, he had been on the court fornearly 15 years.

The most recent term was notable for rulings rejecting themedical use of marijuana, expanding local governments' power toseize a person's home, outlawing juvenile executions and someother cases in which he voted with the dissenters.

"It was a term in which the chief justice was on the losingside of many of the ideological battles he has fought sovigorously throughout his judicial tenure," said StevenShapiro, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director.

"The justices seemed less anxious to undermine meaningfulcivil rights enforcement, more skeptical about the deathpenalty and more willing to look at international law forwhatever guidance it can provide in resolving fundamental humanrights issues," Shapiro said.

Among issues central to the Rehnquist conservative agendahave been protecting property rights and shifting more power tothe states while restricting federal government power.

But the court, with Rehnquist in dissent, gave cities broadpowers to take a person's home or business for a developmentproject designed to revitalize a depressed local economy.

And it ruled Congress had the authority to ban thecultivation, possession and use of marijuana, and that thefederal law trumped state laws allowing the legal use ofmarijuana for medical purposes.


"The medical marijuana case indicates the limitations ofhow much he was able to accomplish," said Georgetown Universitylaw professor Mark Tushnet, who published a book on theRehnquist court this year.

"The chief justice and his allies asserted strong positionsthat would have changed constitutional law dramatically, andone or two of the allies decided each time that pushing thepositions to their conclusions would be too great a change inthe law," he said.

Rehnquist has generally supported the death penalty. Butthe court this term struck down as unconstitutional its use forjuveniles, reversing a ruling that he joined in 1989. It alsooverturned a number of death sentences.

Rehnquist was not always on the losing side during theterm.

He wrote the court's ruling that upheld as constitutional aTen Commandments granite monument, put in place in 1961, on theTexas Capitol grounds as part of a display with a number ofhistorical monuments and statues.

Rehnquist rejected arguments by opponents that the displayhad a religious intent that violated constitutionalchurch-state separation.

Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein said in his statisticalanalysis of the term that the court's conservative majority --Rehnquist and Justices Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia,Anthony Kennedy and Clarence Thomas -- stayed together in onlyfour of the 20 cases decided by a 5-4 vote.

Of those decisions, Rehnquist authored three. Goldsteinsaid Rehnquist agreed with Kennedy and O'Connor less frequentlyin the just-concluded term than in the previous one.

The more liberal members are Justices John Paul Stevens,David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer.