It’s rulings time at the Supreme Court, and this week we got handed an interesting mixed bag of what appear to be fairly sound and even-handed rulings on a variety of issues, particularly having to do with free speech.
The big headliner was the ‘Bong Hits 4 Jesus‘ case, in which a public high-school student in Juneau, Alaska was suspended for 10 days for holding up a banner with the slogan in question at the running of the Olympic torch on a street by his school. The ruling declared that the student did not have the right to endorse drug use at a school sponsored event while acknowledging that the slogan was ambiguous and that the student’s intent may merely have been humor or notoriety. The case had questionable gray areas, including the fact that the student in question was not on school property at the time, but the court clearly wanted to use this case to repeat the point made in previous rulings, that school students do not have unlimited free speech in the context of the educational environment.
In a somewhat more controversial ruling, the court decided by a 5-4 vote that a suit brought by atheist and civil rights groups against administration officials over their faith-based charity initiative would not be allowed to proceed. The plaintiffs had argued that the administration’s efforts to encourage religious charities to apply for federal grant money was a violation of the separation of church and state. The court ruling would seem to make sense, since the grants from the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives are available to both religious and non-religious groups, with the main criteria being their delivery of legitimate charitable services. However, the ruling was actually made on mostly procedural grounds, sidestepping the larger issue and ruling on the basis of the technicality that taxpayer groups have limited standing to sue over the use of money not part of the regular federal budget.
The court also struck a blow against the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform law by lifting restrictions on ‘issue’ ads placed by grassroots groups, including businesses and unions near the time of an election. The court resisted the urging of groups like the Cato Institute that it go further and strike down the entire law by reversing its 2003 ruling that the law as a whole was constitutional. With the 2008 election coming up this change in the campaign finance law should have a significant impact on the most hotly contested campaigns.
In another significant ruling, the court determined that when there is a conflict between the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act the requirements of the Clean Water Act trump the needs of endangered species. While this has been described as a victory for developers over environmentalists, it is actually much more significant as an indicator of basic government philosophy. In this ruling the court is essentially saying that the needs of people are inherently superior to the needs of other species. The ruling also specifically counters a technique used by many radical environmental groups to delay and massively increase the cost of building projects by forcing multiple endangered species surveys on developers with little justification.
Some are going to argue that these rulings show a general anti-rights, conservative trend in the court because of superficial facts like the plaintiffs in the campaign finance case being a pro-life group, but the fact is that even that ruling benefits everyone equally, because they didn’t just lift the restriction for one type of group, they lifted it for everyone. Sure, some of these rulings could be bolder and more decisive, but so far even with the addition of Alito and Roberts the court certainly doesn’t seem to be running amok. These were mostly pretty conservative decisions – in the sense of being not very different from past decisions – and were mostly made by a one vote margin and without any of the really outraged dissents we saw in the last session. It looks like the Supreme Court still works the way it is supposed to.Powered by Sidelines