By ADAM LIPTAK
New York Times
WASHINGTON - Last June, the Supreme Court term ended with restraint and a cliffhanger, as the court left the Voting Rights Act intact and ordered re-argument in Citizens United, the big campaign finance case.
A year later, the profile of the court led by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. is fundamentally changed. Judicial minimalism is gone, and the court has entered an assertive and sometimes unpredictable phase.
That will only intensify with the retirement of Justice John Paul Stevens, a 35-year veteran of the court and the leader of its liberal wing, and his likely replacement by Elena Kagan, the solicitor general, whose confirmation hearings in the Senate are under way this week.
Roberts, who joined the court five years ago, took control of it this year, pushing hard on issues of core concern to him, including campaign finance, gun rights and criminal procedure, even as he found common ground with his colleagues, including some liberals, on an array of other issues.
He was in the majority 92 percent of the time, more than any other justice. Last year that distinction went to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often regarded as the court's swing vote.
"More than in any other year since he became chief justice, this has truly become the Roberts court," said Gregory G. Garre, who served as solicitor general in the administration of George W. Bush and is now at Latham & Watkins.
The centerpiece of the last term was the 5-4 decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, allowing unlimited corporate spending in elections. The ruling generated waves of criticism, including comments from President Barack Obama at the State of the Union address in January. It was the most controversial decision since the Rehnquist court handed the presidency to Bush a decade ago in Bush vs. Gore, and it was easily the most debated of the Roberts court era so far.
Some of the issues that have most engaged the court in recent years were missing this term, which included only one decision concerning national security and none about abortion or about prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The court continued its push to broaden Second Amendment rights, ruling Monday that the amendment's protections apply to state and local gun control laws as well as to federal law.
And the justices further limited the rights of criminal defendants. Last term, it narrowed earlier decisions barring the use of evidence obtained through police misconduct. This term, the focus is on the Miranda rule, which requires the police to warn suspects in custody of their rights before interrogating them. In three decisions this term, the court allowed the police to vary the language of the warning, insist that suspects speak in order to protect their right to remain silent and resume questioning after suspects have invoked their rights.
The court acted quickly - and, some critics said, rashly - in intervening in cases without full briefing and argument.
In January, the court halted the broadcast of the trial over same-sex marriage in San Francisco partly on a rationale it seemed to disavow five months later. This month, it sent elections in Arizona into disarray by barring the use of a 12-year-old campaign finance law.
Roberts provided a sixth vote in the decision banning life-without-parole sentences for juvenile offenders, though on a narrower ground than the majority. He was the only justice to join every part of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion casting doubt on the conviction of Jeffrey Skilling, the former Enron executive.
And the chief justice joined the court's four more liberal members - Stevens, Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor - in Breyer's majority opinion affirming congressional power to authorize the civil confinement of sex offenders. Kennedy and Alito filed concurrences, making the vote in the case 7-2.
"The term as a whole will go down principally for what we see in the evolution of John Roberts and his leadership of the institution," Goldstein said. "He cares about the position of the court in American life. He is not pressing every ideological question but is willing to cross over."
The Supreme Court upheld the legal limits Tuesday on big-money contributions to political parties, rejecting the Republican National Committee bid to free up huge gifts from wealthy donors. The 6-3 summary ruling showed the high court is not prepared to throw out all the limits on money in politics.
In January, the court struck down prohibitions on pre-election broadcast ads that were paid for with corporate or union money. Champions of the campaign-funding laws found something to cheer about.
"This is an extremely important victory that stops the recent serious erosion by the Supreme Court (and) supports anticorruption laws to protect the integrity of our elections and our government," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21.
In the 1990s, Democratic and Republican leaders realized they could get around the federal limits on contributions to candidates by raising huge amounts of money through their parties. The parties, in turn, spent this so-called "soft money" on ads that boosted the candidates.
The McCain-Feingold Act closed this loophole in 2002 by setting new limits on contributions to parties. Now the parties may not ask for or get more than $30,400 per year from an individual. The high court upheld the limits in 2003. The RNC sued, contending the limits violated the First Amendment. A three-judge panel upheld the limits in March. Tuesday, the Supreme Court's one-line ruling affirmed that decision.