Supreme Court Ends Term

The Supreme Court in Washington has ended its current term after ruling on a number of issues that affect American life. I'm Steve Ember. And I'm Faith Lapidus. This week we tell about the court and some of its rulings on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.

Seven men and two women serve on the Supreme Court. Their duty is to make sure federal and state laws agree with the United States Constitution. The court often decides some of the most important issues in the country.

Several cases brought the most interest during the term just ended. The justices ruled about sexual relations between people of the same sex. They ruled about the use of race in university admissions, and about Internet blocking in public libraries. And, among other issues, they dealt with the debate about how to treat sex criminals.

When the Supreme Court hears a case, the justices listen to arguments by lawyers for each side. The justices question the lawyers to get more details. They read information about the case. They read how similar cases were decided. They discuss the case, and then they vote.

A majority of the votes of the nine justices decides what will become the law of the land. One of the justices in the majority writes an opinion that explains the ruling. Once a final version is agreed, that justice also announces the decision in court. Others may write their own opinions in support of it. Justices who disagree write dissenting opinions.

One of the cases this term involved two men arrested in Houston in nineteen-ninety-eight. They were found guilty of breaking a Texas law and ordered to pay a fine. They argued that the law violated their privacy and their right to equal protection under the Constitution.

Last month the Supreme Court ruled, six-to-three, against the state of Texas. The justices decided that state laws that ban homosexual relations between adults violate the Constitution.

After that, the Supreme Court acted on the case of a teen-ager in Kansas. He received a seventeen-year prison term in state court for sex with another boy. The justices cancelled the prison sentence and directed judges in Kansas to reconsider the case. Kansas officials say the ruling on the Texas law made a similar Kansas law unenforceable.

Oklahoma and Missouri also have laws against homosexual relations, while several other states give some rights only to married people.

Among those who disagreed with the court was the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate, Bill Frist. Senator Frist said he would support a constitutional amendment to prevent gay marriages. President Bush has said he opposes the idea of gay marriages. But he says he does not know if a constitutional amendment is needed.

The Supreme Court also made important decisions last month about affirmative action. That is the name for programs to help members of minority groups and women in education and employment.

White students rejected by the University of Michigan and its law school had brought two separate cases against diversity programs. They said these programs to create racial balance in the student population were unfair to whites.

In the case of the law school, the court said colleges and universities can use race to help decide which students to accept, but along with other considerations. Five justices voted that the Constitution permits this. Four others voted against it.

The court agreed with an opinion from twenty-five years ago that said diversity is an important state interest in university admissions. But the court also said it expects that twenty-five years from now, such use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.

It was a close vote. Civil rights activists welcomed the decision to uphold the law school program. But the court also said schools must limit the consideration they give to race.

By a vote of six-to-three, the justices ruled against Michigan's undergraduate program. This program gave blacks, Hispanics and American Indians extra points toward admission. The court said this was unfair to whites.

Among other rulings, the justices dealt with the length of some prison sentences. One case involved a law in California for people found guilty of three serious crimes. This law requires a term of life in prison.

Opponents argued that this sentence for a man found guilty of stealing as his most recent crime violates the Eighth Amendment. The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution bars cruel and unusual punishment. But the court decided five-to-four that, given the criminal history of the man who appealed, the California law is acceptable.

Another ruling dealt with cases in which execution is a possible punishment. It said lower courts must consider claims that government lawyers purposely excluded blacks from juries. The justices also said defense lawyers must look for any evidence that might keep a jury from sentencing someone to death.

The court also affirmed and extended time limits for what are called "Megan's laws." These are state laws named for a child who was murdered by a man with a history of sex offenses. The laws permit information such as pictures of offenders and where they live and work to be published after they serve their sentences. The goal is to warn other people.

The Supreme Court ruled that these measures are acceptable under the Constitution. And the justices said that state officials did not have to prove first that former sex offenders are still dangerous.

The court also said that such laws can now include sex criminals whose crimes took place before Megan's laws were passed.

Family and work also brought Supreme Court action this term. In nineteen-ninety-four, Congress passed the Family and Medical Leave Act. This law says most workers can take up to twelve weeks a year off work without pay to care for a family member. Workers can take an employer to court if they are unfairly dismissed.

Now the justices have ruled that people can seek money damages when states violate the federal law. In other cases, the court has said states are protected from such action.

The court also ruled on a case involving public libraries that receive federal money to offer Internet service. The justices decided that Congress can require the libraries to use programs that block offensive sexual material. The American Library Association had argued that such programs might also block important information.

Congress created the Supreme Court in seventeen-eighty-nine. The president appoints the justices with Senate approval. They serve for life. Currently the average age is close to seventy. The last opening on the court was almost ten years ago.

The court normally begins its term in October. But this September the nine justices plan a special hearing on a new campaign finance law. They must decide if restrictions on raising money and on advertising violate the right of free speech.

The Supreme Court is one of the three major divisions of government. In eighteen-oh-three, Chief Justice John Marshall declared that the court could decide if laws passed by Congress were constitutional. Since then, the court has played an important part in examining actions taken by Congress as well as the president.

The Supreme Court has helped make major changes in American society. In eighteen-ninety-six, for example, the court said it was legal to have separate public places for blacks and whites. The court said this was legal as long as the places provided equal service. Many American schools used that decision as a way to permit racial separation for almost sixty years.

But the Supreme Court can change its mind. In nineteen-fifty-four, the court said racial separation in schools did violate the Constitution. This ruling helped launch a major movement to gain racial equality for African Americans.

Not all Supreme Court cases result in such historic decisions. But some of the rulings from the term just ended will surely be felt in American life into the future.

This program was written by Jerilyn Watson. I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember. Join us again next week for another report about life in the United States on the VOA Special English program, THIS IS AMERICA.