Reversals signalled by justices Conservatives ready to upset precedents

June 30, 1991|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The SunWashington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court has left town with th strongest indications that modern precedents most reviled by conservative politicians and philosophers are now open to early and possibly fundamental change, and perhaps even to being discarded outright.


In 18 precedents, the conservative view prevailed


All 18 cases: Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist

of 18: Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor, Antonin Scalia, newcomer David H. Souter (who joined in 17 of the 18)

12 of 18: Byron R. White

2 of 18: Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens

1 of 18: Thurgood Marshall



Convictions based partly on confessions that were forced out of suspects do not always have to be thrown out. (Written by Rehnquist)

* Individuals arrested without a warrant may be held in jail up to two days before they appear in court. (O'Connor)

* People on trial do not have a constitutional right, when a case is surrounded by heavy publicity, to have jurors asked what they have heard about it. (Rehnquist)

* Unsafe, unsanitary and inhumane conditions inside prisons are unconstitutional only if they were caused intentionally by officials. (Scalia)

* States may punish a first-time crime of possession of a minimum amount of illegal drugs with mandatory life in prison with no chance of release. (Kennedy)

Decided 6-3

* Prosecutors are free to seek death sentences by emotional pleas for jurors' sympathy for murder victims and their families. (Rehnquist)

* Most state inmates challenging their convictions in federal court must press all their claims the first time, or forfeit them. (Kennedy)

* Police may board buses, trains or planes at terminals and look for drugs even if they have no reason to think any are on board. (O'Connor)

* State prison inmates are barred from federal courts if a mistake by their lawyers kept state courts from having the first chance to rule on their constitutional complaints. (O'Connor)

Decided 7-2

* Police may engage in chases or use other shows of force to stop individuals on the street, even if they have no firm suspicion of crime. (Scalia)

. . . ON CIVIL RIGHTS Decided 5-4

Federal courts must look hard and skeptically at any civil rights laws passed by Congress that interfere with the states' power to run their own affairs. (O'Connor)

Decided 6-3

* U.S. civil rights laws barring race, sex and religious bias on the job do not apply to U.S. companies overseas. (Rehnquist)

Decided 5-3

* Formerly segregated public school systems must be freed from federal court supervision if they have obeyed desegregation orders for a "reasonable" period of time, even if one-race schools remain in that community. (Rehnquist; Souter did not take part)

@. . . ON ABORTION Decided 5-4

The Constitution permits the federal government to ban all mention of abortion as an option at federally funded family-planning clinics. (Rehnquist)


The Constitution does not protect nude dancing in barrooms and "adult" theaters. (Rehnquist)

* Reporters and news organization may be sued for damages for breaking a promise to keep secret the identity of a news source. (White)

* States are free to punish lawyers who make out-of-court statements likely to prejudice a trial. (Rehnquist)

Decided 7-2

* Journalists and authors who deliberately make up quotes may be sued for libel, but only if the phony quotes harmed the source's reputation and had a different meaning than something the source actually said. (Kennedy)

A5 In 3 major precedents, the liberal view prevailed

* HOW AND WHICH JUSTICES VOTED WITH THE MAJORITY All 3: Blackmun, Marshall, Souter, Stevens

of 3: O'Connor

1 of 3: Kennedy, Scalia, White

None: Chief Justice Rehnquist


. . . ON THE DEATH PENALTY Decided 5-4

State appeals courts must examine all evidence that would tend to show that a death sentence was not justified in a given case. (O'Connor)

. . . ON WOMEN'S RIGHTS Decided 6-3

Companies may not try to protect the life or health of fetuses by barring fertile women workers from exposure to job risks. (Blackmun)

. . . ON MINORITIES' RIGHTS Decided 6-3

The Constitution forbids lawyers in civil trials from using automatic "strikes" to keep minorities off juries. (Kennedy)



Major issues the court has agreed to decide

in its term opening Oct. 7

* Does the 1954 school desegregation decision, in Brown vs. Board of Education, apply at the college level, and if so, how?

* What must a formerly segregated public school system do to achieve complete desegregation under the Brown decision?

* Does federal civil rights law protect pregnant women from anti-abortion demonstrators outside clinics?

* Does the Constitution protect burning of a cross on a black family's lawn?

* Is it unconstitutional for public school students to pray at graduation exercises?

* May smokers or their survivors sue tobacco companies for damages for covering up the health risks of smoking cigarettes?

* Is it unconstitutional for states to seize, and pay to crime victims, all proceeds from the sale of books and movies about the life stories of criminals?

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