Most terms of the Supreme Court go by without much publicity. The court usually hands down only one or two cases notable to make the front page of the times and another case or two worthy of the business section. In some terms, however, the Court accepts more than its usual load of high-profile cases and goes through a period of soul-searching.
In recent memory, a few terms stand out as ‘landmark’ terms. OT99 (October ’99-July ’00) was notable for being the term that marked the beginning of the end for the ‘Rehnquist Revolution.’ Conservatives had a victory in Boy Scouts of America v. Dale but the weakness of the conservatives was exposed in Stenberg v. Carhart, the landmark abortion case.
Above all others, however, OT06 stands out as the most revealing case in recent memory. It was the first full term of the Roberts Court and, notably, it was the first term in which cases accepted by the Justices on the court today. The conservatives on the Court felt stronger than ever and wasted no time taking cases they thought they could win.
The conservatives were right. In cases across the board, the liberal bloc of the court was thumped by the five conservatives. You can find a complete list of the cases from OT06 here, but the major conservative victories were in Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (faith-based initiatives), FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life (campaign finance), Morse v. Frederick (speech), and Gonzales v. Carhart (abortion).
As the justices’ private documents become public, I have little doubt that the term will only become more interesting. Justice Ginsburg faced narrow, but nonetheless devastating, loses in Ledbetter v. Goodyear and Gonzales v. Carhart. Justice Kennedy controlled nearly every major case before the court that year and had written, in my opinion, one of the most inflammatory Supreme Court opinions of all-time, Gonzales v. Carhart.
The next term, OT07, proved to be just as explosive. Landmark cases like Kennedy v. Louisiana (death penalty), Boumediene v. Bush (habeus), Medellin v. Texas (international law and executive power), and DC v. Heller (Gun rights) produced a much more balanced term than the one before it. Justices Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer won major victories in Kennedy and Boumediene while the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito won decisive victories in Medellin, Stoneridge Investments v. Scientific America, and, in particular, Heller.
OT08 is shaping up to be much less politically-charged. Plesant Grove v. Summum, a case about religious monuments on public property, represents the most high-profile case of the term and there isn’t another case that comes close. In December, the court agreed to review al-Marri v. Pucciarelli, a case that questions the detention without charge of a person labeled as an ‘enemy combatant.’ The court will likely hear that case in March.
The court will meet for conference this Friday, January 9, and will likely add a few cases to the argument calender for April.