For most of the term, Supreme Court justices showed remarkable restraint. They displayed broad agreement even in some volatile areas and refrained from angry dissents.
Then they decided the tough cases.
The court, in its three most important cases, declared a constitutional right to have guns at home for self-defense, granted some constitutional protections to foreign prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and outlawed the death penalty for people who rape children.
Not only did the familiar ideological divisions return in these cases and several others, but the justices took turns hurling charges of “judicial activism” and worse at each other.
Giving rights to the detainees “will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed,” Justice Antonin Scalia said in a scathing dissent.
No one threw that line back at Scalia in the guns case. But Justice John Paul Stevens, also summarizing his dissent in court, said of Scalia's majority opinion on gun rights that “adherence to a policy of judicial restraint by this court is far wiser than the bold decision it announced today.”
Those were among nine 5-4 decisions handed down in the past two weeks. Until then, there had been only two all term, leading a former Supreme Court clerk, Robert Gordon, to remark that the era of good feelings at the court lasted about a month.
“Whatever talk there has been about judicial restraint doesn't seem to be guiding any identifiable group on the court,” said Christopher Eisgruber, a constitutional law professor and Princeton University provost. “Liberal justices are willing to intervene on controversial issues when they present themselves and so are the conservatives.”
Looking back on the 69 cases the justices decided in their term, former Texas Solicitor General Ted Cruz said the results confirm the central role of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
The court under Chief Justice John Roberts defies easy labels, although it became more conservative when Samuel Alito replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, Cruz said.
He called it an “exquisitely balanced court with Justice Kennedy remaining at the fulcrum of most, if not all, close decisions.”
Kennedy wrote the majority opinions in the Guantanamo and rape cases. Kennedy said he discerned a “national consensus” against the death penalty for rapists, but both Republican John McCain and Democrat Barack Obama criticized the decision.
Kennedy also was in the majority in the gun case.
In all, the term had fewer of the controversial cases than in its previous term, where there were 24 5-4 splits.
The current lineup of justices has been in place for roughly 21/2 years, since Alito took his seat.
They seem sure to have at least one more term together, but several justices could retire in the next few years. Stevens is the oldest and longest-serving among them, but four others will be at least 70 when the court reconvenes in October.