WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's conservative majority made it harder for people to band together to sue the nation's largest businesses in the two most far-reaching rulings of the term the justices are wrapping up on Monday.
The two cases putting new limits on class-action lawsuits were among more than a dozen in which the justices divided 5-4 along familiar ideological lines, with the winning side determined by the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Women made up one-third of the nine-member court for the first time ever this year, but missing from the court's docket was a case that could be called historic.
Next year and 2013 could look very different, with potentially divisive and consequential cases on immigration, gay marriage and health care making their way to the high court.
The makeup of the court, however, is not expected to change.
Chief Justice John Roberts said the court would finish its business on Monday when the justices will announce decisions in four remaining cases, including two First Amendment disputes.
In one, video game makers are leading a challenge to a California law that bars the sale or rental of violent video games to children. The case was argued nearly eight months ago, when it appeared a majority of the court was inclined to strike down the law.
The other case involves a campaign finance law in Arizona that rewards candidates who accept public funds with additional cash when privately funded rivals and independent groups exceed certain spending thresholds.
Also Monday, the justices are expected to decide whether to hear several important cases next term. They include:
- Whether police need a search warrant before they place a global positioning device on a car to track a suspect's movements
- A challenge to the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission regulation of indecency on television
- Suits against defense contractors over claims of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq
- And yet another business-backed challenge to class-action suits in state courts.
Justice Antonin Scalia was the author of the majority opinion in both class-action cases, Wal-Mart v. Dukes and AT&T v. Concepcion. The Wal-Mart decision blocked a sex discrimination suit on behalf of up to 1.6 million female employees and made it harder to mount large-scale claims against big companies in federal court.
The AT&T decision endorsed the use of provisions that are common in consumer contracts for cellphones, credit cards and other goods and services in which the customer waives the right to sue. Scalia's opinion said those provisions were valid, even in the face of state laws that protect the availability of class actions.
Civil rights, consumer groups and plaintiffs' lawyers like class actions because by pooling often individually modest claims into a case with a lot of money at stake, they provide a way to hold businesses accountable. Those groups say that individuals are not going to file suit, and would never find a willing lawyer, over the $30 at issue in the customer complaint that led to the AT&T decision.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the law school at the University of California at Irvine and a liberal critic of the court, faulted the majority for "ignoring the human consequences of its decisions."
The rulings in those cases provided new fodder for complaints that the Roberts court has a pro-business tilt. A frequent critic, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans a hearing this coming week about recent decisions' effect on individuals' access to the courts and on corporate behavior.
Robin Conrad, the head of the legal arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, dismissed the notion of a pro-business court as "a silly myth" that was undercut by a record of as many victories as losses in cases of interest to the Chamber of Commerce.
Yet Conrad acknowledged that the group won the three cases — the class-action disputes and a successful effort to block a climate change suit by six states — that were "easily the most important business cases of the term."
Perhaps the most impassioned case of the term involved the fight by the father of a dead Marine to hold accountable the protesters who picketed his son's funeral with anti-gay and other highly charged signs. By an 8-1 vote, the court said the grieving father's pain must yield to First Amendment protections for free speech.
In other important cases, the court:
Limited challenges to government programs that use tax breaks to direct money to religious activities, a 5-4 ruling in favor of an Arizona tuition tax credit
Held that states have at least some role to play in the immigration arena, upholding by a 5-4 vote another Arizona law penalizing employers for hiring illegal immigrants
Unanimously ruled that former Attorney General John Ashcroft cannot be held personally liable for the arrest of an American Muslim suspected of ties to terrorism under a law aimed at ensuring the presence of witnesses at trials
And agreed, by a 5-4 vote, with a lower court that overcrowding at California prisons has led to inadequate inmate health care that is "cruel and unusual" under the Eighth Amendment and requires a significant cut in the prison population.
The prison ruling was one of only a few in which Kennedy sided with the liberals in the split decisions. "The court is still very solidly conservative," said Supreme Court advocate Thomas Goldstein, who also publishes Scotusblog.
President Barack Obama's two appointees, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, almost always voted with the other two liberals, Justices Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Kagan joined the court in August and had to sit out more than one-third of the court's cases in her first term because of her prior job as Obama's solicitor general. Most of those cases were early on, and her absence rarely affected the outcome.
With the two new justices at either end of the bench, and Ginsburg close to the center, the court had three women serving together for the first time.
That seems unlikely to change for at least a year or two. If Ginsburg is true to her word, she will be on the court until at least 2015. She turns 82 that year and has said she would like to emulate Justice Louis Brandeis, who retired at age 82.
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