The Supreme Court’s recent term featured momentous decisions, with several verdicts relying on new applications of the First Amendment and others seeming to defend business interests. Free speech played a central role in Court rulings that allowed protesters to demonstrate at funerals, enabled generic drug companies to forgo warning labels, and protected politicians who opt for private financing, Other decisions resulted in narrowed criteria for class-action law suits, a validation of Arizona’s law dictating stricter penalties for businesses hiring illegal workers, and easier inmate access to DNA evidence that could help prove their innocence. The Court also rendered judgment on issues affecting us right here in California, finding that a ban on violent video games sold to minors violated the First Amendment’s right to free speech and that overcrowded state prisons infringed on the Eighth’s protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Four justices have joined the bench in the last five years, with strong convictions and sometimes controversial ways of reading the law. Much of the time, they are sharply divided along ideological lines—in fact, 12 out of recent 14 decisions saw this pattern. Conservative justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia often voted together, as did liberal justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan; the moderate Justice Anthony Kennedy served as the “swing” vote on most decisions. It would seem that many of the recent rulings are in line traditionally rightist and leftist attitudes on business rights, consumer protection, inmate rights and immigration. How strong are their respective influences on the bench, and what historically has caused changes in that balance of power? What common beliefs do the justices share, and what are they unwilling to compromise on? And will Obama’s healthcare plan, affirmative action and Prop 8 be next on the Court’s agenda?