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The court's loyal foot soldiers

For years, the Rehnquist court has been chipping away at the Fourth Amendment, which was intended to protect Americans from unreasonable search and seizure. This past week, the Supreme Court made an even bolder and more destructive assault on the amendment, turning it on its head and tearing away huge chunks of the protections that Americans until now had taken for granted. As a result of the ruling, police officers often will no longer need to bother with obtaining a warrant to rifle through suitcases, boxes or other containers found in motor vehicles, even if they had no probable cause to search the car in the first place. Even people who might otherwise assume that they have nothing to fear from such searches should be able to imagine the ways in which bad cops, relieved of the burden of persuading a judge to issue a warrant, could take advantage of the new rules to harass citizens who have done nothing to provoke reasonable suspicion.

For now, at least, police generally must obtain a warrant to search containers in the possession of a person walking on the sidewalk or relaxing in his or her own home, but the Rehnquist court has been chipping away at those once-unassailable rights, too. Give the justices a little more time and a few more convenient cases, and the Bill of Rights may go the way of the Florida panther.

As has become typical of the Rehnquist court's most perplexing decisions, the majority opinion in California vs. Acevedo ignored logic and legal precedent in favor of old-fashioned political expediency. The legislative and executive branches of government are naturally responsive to the political passions of the moment, but the court system traditionally has functioned on a higher plane, interpreting the Constitution in an environment independent from such pressures.

Unfortunately, Chief Justice Rehnquist and a majority of his colleagues are distorting and diminishing the historic role of the Supreme Court. Rather than fulfilling its intended function as a counterbalance to executive authority, the court now is being used to help implement the ideological agendas of the Reagan and Bush White Houses, sanctioning state powers that traditionally have been considered at variance with the Constitution. Authoritarian regimes typically manipulate their court systems in just such ways, but it's a frightening prospect for a democracy based on individual rights.

In his dissent in California vs. Acevedo, Justice Harry Blackmun writes that the decision "will support the conclusion that this court has become a loyal foot soldier in the executive's fight against crime." Justices Rehnquist and Kennedy in particular seem to be hopeless cases, eager to perform their subsidiary roles without letting the Constitution get in their way. Americans who care about protecting their constitutional rights can only hope that one or two of the high court's other ideological justices eventually will come to resist having their exalted positions reduced to the level of foot soldiers by presidential administrations seeking quasi-legal pretexts for their "wars" on drugs and crime.