Supreme Court rules on controversial topics before end of session

Erin Ghere

The U.S. Supreme Court was busy last week, announcing several controversial decisions.
Ruling on citizens’ rights when under arrest, gay and lesbian rights and “partial-birth” abortion, the court marked the ending of its session with several key decisions.
As the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court’s rulings stand as law.
The court’s session has ended and the justices will begin reviewing cases again in October.
A warning of your rights
“You have the right to remain silent …”
People arrested by the police will still hear those words, according to a June 26 court decision. In a 7-2 ruling, the justices upheld their original 1966 Miranda v. Arizona decision.
“Miranda has become embedded in routine police practice to the point where the warnings have become part of our national culture,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote in the opinion.
The original decision has been criticized for its vague guidelines on the validity of prisoner confessions while in police custody. Questions have centered around how courts can establish whether the confession was voluntary or coerced.
The Miranda case came back to the court challenging a long-ignored 1968 federal law in which Congress basically overturned the court’s ruling. The Court argued the warning was a constitutional question, not a congressional one, said Gordon Silverstein, a University political science professor.
“If that is true,” he said, “then a simple law passed by Congress can’t override a constitutional provision.”
The court only has jurisdiction over a case if it holds a constitutional question.
If the court had changed its ruling on Miranda warnings, it would have caused more confusion than it was worth, Silverstein said.
Banning gay scout leaders
Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled against New Jersey former assistant scoutmaster James Dale, arguing the Boy Scouts can ban gay scout leaders.
The close 5-4 decision stipulated that forcing the organization to accept gay scout leaders would violate the Boy Scouts’ rights to free expression and association.
Dale sued under a New Jersey law banning discrimination in public accommodation.
“The Boy Scouts asserts that homosexual conduct is inconsistent with the values it seeks to instill,” Rehnquist wrote in the opinion.
The court said forcing the Boy Scouts otherwise would “significantly burden the organization’s right to oppose or disfavor homosexual conduct,” interfering with their First Amendment rights.
Silverstein said the court didn’t see it as a gay-rights question, but the distinction between public and private groups.
“If the Boy Scouts are truly a private organization … then they are allowed to say that certain lifestyles or choices are not acceptable in their club,” he said.
Others disagree.
“They’re saying this organization has the right to discriminate,” said Beth Zemsky, director of the University’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Program Office.
Partial-birth abortion law struck down
The court also struck down a Nebraska law banning “partial-birth” abortions last Wednesday in a sharply divided 5-4 decision, saying it violated the court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.
Silverstein said the court has said states can legislate third trimester abortions, but they cannot ban them all together. The original Roe decision said no state can pass a law putting an undue burden on women’s rights to choose an abortion.
Partial-birth abortion occurs when a fetus, legs first, is brought through the birth canal, but before being born, its head is cut and drained of its contents. They are normally performed in the last three months of a woman’s pregnancy.
The Nebraska law had vague wording and could have criminalized other methods of abortion, according to the ruling.
Justice Stephen Breyer wrote the opinion, saying the vagueness made all who perform abortions in the state fearsome of prosecution, conviction and imprisonment, putting “an undue burden upon a woman’s right to make an abortion decision.”
Silverstein said the decision makes it clear the justices are willing to uphold the principles of the Roe decision.
“That is not to say,” he continued, “that there is a solid majority in favor of a right to choose — but that there is a majority who say they are unwilling to overturn a precedent that is now so deeply entrenched in the law and in the court’s other decisions.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.