Facing stirrings of Republican revolt over Iraq and domestic policy disappointment, US President George W. Bush can at least point to the Supreme Court for an enduring legacy.
America’s ultimate constitutional arbiter has tilted rightwards under Bush — a shift that could endure for decades even if a Democrat returns to the White House in next year’s election.
Analysts pointed to a slew of rulings in the court’s just-ended 2006-07 term that hit many of the right buttons for Bush’s Republican base including on abortion, free speech and affirmative action.
“It’s an interesting thing that on the day he lost his legacy with regard to the immigration reform, he gained a legacy in terms of the Supreme Court,” said Jonathan Turley, professor at the George Washington University Law School.
“He can honestly claim that he changed the Supreme Court, and his new majority changed the law in this country, and thereby changed the country,” he said.
On Thursday, the final day of the Supreme Court’s term before a three-month summer recess, Bush’s hopes for a sweeping overhaul of US immigration law collapsed owing to Senate opposition.
The landmark reform was seen as one of his last, best hopes for a legacy-boosting second-term victory, at a time when even some top Republican lawmakers are starting to doubt the wisdom of Bush’s strategy in Iraq.
But while the immigration bill was going down in flames in Congress, nearby on Capitol Hill, the Supreme Court was quietly carving out a new course on one of the most emotive topics in US politics.
Provoking outrage from Democrats and civil-rights campaigners, Chief Justice John Roberts led a five-to-four majority in ruling that school authorities do not have free rein to balance the racial mix of their student populations.
The ruling dismantled a key plank of “affirmative action” programs that promote racial diversity in US schools, sparking unusually passionate language from the bench’s liberal minority.
“It is my firm conviction that no member of the court that I joined in 1975 would have agreed with today’s decision,” wrote the Supreme Court’s longest-serving justice, John Paul Stevens.
In 2003, the Supreme Court had narrowly upheld race-based admissions policies in universities thanks to the swing vote of Sandra Day O’Connor.
The court’s first female member retired last year and was replaced by Bush’s conservative nominee Samuel Alito. On Bush’s nomination, as well, Roberts became the court’s third-youngest chief justice in 2005.
The confirmation of Roberts and Alito was from the start a setback for civil rights, said People For the American Way Foundation president Ralph Neas, “but it’s painful to watch years of progress undone so recklessly.”
Time appears to be on the side of the conservative bloc, which also includes Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court’s only black justice.
Supreme Court justices can sit for life if they choose. While Roberts is only 52, Stevens is 87 and his liberal ally Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 74.
Conservative legal commentator Horace Cooper said that under Bush’s picks, the court is now “much more focused on the actual case, on the issue, and less concerned about the political or social ramifications, and less idealistic.”
Among other recent victories for conservative Republicans, the Supreme Court in April backtracked on abortion rights for the first time in more than a generation by upholding a ban on a late-term abortion procedure.
Conservative activists would dearly like the court also to reverse its landmark Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, which established a woman’s constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy.
The Roberts court has been good for business too, according to the US Chamber of Commerce’s National Chamber Litigation Center (NCLC), with 13 path-breaking rulings in favor of the corporate world this term.
“We’ve been representing the business community before the Supreme Court for 30 years, and this is our strongest showing since the inception of NCLC,” the center’s executive vice president Robin Conrad said.
Rare liberal victories, like an April ruling against the government on greenhouse gas emissions, only came about with the defection of moderate conservative Anthony Kennedy from the Roberts camp.
Back in 2000, it was Kennedy that decided that year’s bitterly contested presidential election by siding with four other conservatives and, in effect, declaring Bush the victor.