WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court smiled on President Bush and big business during its 2006-2007 term, which just ended, gratifying a White House beset by problems nearly everywhere else.
Reinforced by two conservative Bush appointees, the court sided with the administration's position more than 80 percent of the time. Even one of the administration's highest-profile losses reflected the White House's innermost political sympathies.
"A lot of people have been observing that the administration has kind of had its way with this court," said Washington attorney Maureen Mahoney, a Republican frequently identified as a potential Supreme Court nominee.
The White House won big policy victories, as when justices upheld late-term abortion ban, and scored key procedural wins, with the court blocking taxpayers from challenging Bush's faith-based initiative. White House allies prevailed when the court sided with parents who oppose race-based school decisions.
The administration's record was far from perfect, however.
In the year's highest-profile environmental case, the court by a 5-4 margin declared that the Environmental Protection Agency has the authority to regulate greenhouse gases. And on Friday, in an even more surprising twist, at least five justices agreed to reverse a prior court ruling and hear an appeal from prisoners detained at Guantanamo Bay. That hearing will take place next fall.
Every Supreme Court term combines theatrics with technicalities. The decisions with the longest reach can take years to unfold or require a doctorate to comprehend. The cases with the most vivid facts may drift to the legal backwaters, or turn up elsewhere in surprising ways.
And even glittering won-loss records can conceal more complicated undercurrents. Over the past term, the court's conservatives have clashed among themselves, and its dissenters have revealed some hard feelings.
"The majority is wrong," fumed Justice Stephen Breyer, taking nearly 30 minutes to read a recent dissent from the bench. "It's not often in law that so few have changed so much so quickly."
The administration weighed in on some 46 cases this past term, all handled by Solicitor General Paul Clement. Some cases involved the government itself. Many others involved private cases on which the administration had a point of view. Thirty eight times, the administration's view prevailed.
The Clinton administration, by contrast, sometimes lost as many as half of the Supreme Court cases on which it expressed views.
"The current administration may be more in tune with a majority of the Supreme Court than was the case during the previous administration," said Washington legal aid attorney Barbara McDowell, who served eight years in the solicitor general's office.
In truth, McDowell added, solicitor generals frequently have good batting averages with the court. They have considerable experience, pick their fights carefully and generally enjoy the court's respect.
Still, the White House wasn't the only big winner as Chief Justice John Roberts led a conservative if at times tenuous majority. Business interests likewise count the newly finished term a success. The Chamber of Commerce prevailed in 13 out of 16 cases on which it weighed in.
"We've been representing the business community before the Supreme Court for 30 years, and this is our strongest showing (ever)," crowed Robin Conrad, executive vice president of the National Chamber Litigation Center.
In some respects, the 2006-2007 term was a modest one for a court in its second year under Roberts' leadership. Unlike the previous term, justices didn't render big terrorism or national security decisions. The court also issued fewer decisions, 72, than it has in previous years.
Roberts, moreover, fell far short of his ambitious goal of unifying the court.
During his September 2005 confirmation hearing, Roberts told the Senate Judiciary Committee that "the chief justice has a particular obligation to try to achieve consensus" and declared that would "certainly be a priority for me." Nonetheless, 24 out of the 72 cases this term were decided by 5-4 margins.
"There's been more division in this court, (although) not on the business side," noted Washington attorney Beth Brinkman, a Democrat who's argued 21 cases before the high court.
More cases were decided by 5-4 margins than in any term over at least the past decade, according to figures compiled by the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. There also were notably fewer unanimous decisions than there were in previous years.
Consistently, Roberts joined with justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas Samuel Alito Jr. and Anthony Kennedy to form the majority. It was Kennedy, though, who really flexed his muscles.
With the departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Kennedy fully claimed the role of crucial swing vote this year. He was on the winning side in every one of the 24 cases decided by 5-4 margins.
Kennedy, moreover, periodically restrained what the Roberts' majority would otherwise have accomplished. On Thursday, for instance, Kennedy joined with the slim conservative majority to strike down race-based student assignment policies in Louisville and Seattle.
The court sided with white families in ruling that the schools' race-based decisions violated constitutional guarantees of equal protection.
But in a concurring opinion, Kennedy stressed that he wouldn't go as far as Roberts in eliminating race in school policies. Kennedy's contention that Roberts shows "an all-too unyielding insistence that race cannot be a factor" effectively limits the reach of the majority's decision.
"Within the five-person conservative majority, there were fascinating internal splits," said Stanford Law School professor Kathleen Sullivan.
It's a tug-of-war: Kennedy pulling in one direction and Scalia and Thomas pulling in another.
Roberts, for instance, wrote the majority opinion concluding that a campaign finance law limiting certain pre-election ads violated the free-speech rights of Wisconsin Right to Life. The law blocks unions and corporations from directly financing certain ads within 60 days of a general election and 30 days of a primary.
The Roberts opinion will make it much easier for unions and corporations to run ads. He didn't, however, strike down the campaign finance law itself.
Scalia and Thomas joined the majority, but insisted separately that Roberts was being disingenuous. It would be more honest, they said, for the court to overturn the law it otherwise was gutting.
"This faux judicial restraint is judicial obfuscation," Scalia wrote, speaking of one of his ostensible ideological allies.
The campaign finance case itself was a tricky one for the Bush administration. Bush reluctantly signed the campaign finance law in 2002, opposed by many of the White House's political allies. Nonetheless, the administration defended the law in court.