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Conservatives led by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist maintained their controlling grip on the Supreme Court in the 1989-90 term, but defections in some key cases slowed the court's rightward march.

"In the big cases, with occasional forays off the reservation, the conservatives still carried the day," said American University law professor Herman Schwartz. "But when the liberals had control back in the '60s they didn't win them all either."In the just-completed term, the court refused to let family members assert a "right to die" and end life-sustaining treatment for permanently comatose relatives whose wishes are not clearly known; made it harder for girls under 18 to get abortions without notifying their parents; allowed students to meet in public schools for prayer and worship; and condoned police roadblocks to check for drunken drivers.

Not all the decisions had such a conservative thrust.

The court enhanced federal judges' power to supervise school desegregation efforts, eviscerated the political patronage system, upheld government affirmative action programs attacked as discriminatory against whites and struck down a federal law that banned flag burning.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy, both conservative, sided with three liberal justices to overturn the law banning flag burning. Justice Byron R. White, another conservative, joined four liberals in the affirmative action and the political patronage decisions.

"It's a precarious majority, and disappointments occurred when one or another justice jumped off the conservative ship," John Scully of the conservative Washington Legal Foundation said. "We definitely need the appointment of one more conservative justice."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joins Rehnquist, Scalia, Kennedy and White in the five-member conservative majority.

Justices William J. Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens are the court's liberals.

Blackmun, in an interview in the term's waning days, said the conservatives "this year have control of the court completely, and are making the most of it."

Voting statistics for the term appear to confirm Blackmun's perception.

In the 129 signed decisions, the five conservatives cast a total of 83 dissenting votes while the four liberals cast 168.

One decision can yield, in addition to a majority opinion, several dissenting and concurring opinions.

Of the 37 decisions reached by a 5-4 vote, the conservative-liberal split held in 19.


(Additional information)

Major decisions of '89-90 term


-States may ban abortions for most unmarried girls under 18 unless one or both parents first are notified or a judge's permission is obtained.


-Family members cannot assert a "right to die" for a permanently comatose relative unless there is clear evidence of the patient's wishes.

-Police do not violate privacy rights when they set up roadblocks and briefly detain motorists in trying to catch drunken drivers.

-Prison officials may force inmates to take powerful anti-psychotic drugs without first seeking court approval.


-Congress violated free-speech rights when it passed a law that banned flag burning.

-Government jobs generally may not be awarded based on political party affiliation. The ruling, protecting the freedom of association and eviscerating the patronage system, applies to hiring, firing, promotions and transfers.

-States do not violate free-speech rights when they limit corporate spending on behalf of candidates in political campaigns.

-States may make it a crime to possess child pornography, even in one's home.


-Government affirmative action policies giving special consideration to blacks and other minorities in awarding radio and television station licenses do not discriminate unlawfully against whites.

-Federal judges have the authority to order local officials to raise taxes to pay for school desegregation and to block any state law that would prevent such action. But the court said judges may not themselves impose the tax hike.

-A federal judge exceeded his authority in imposing fines against individual city councilmen who blocked a housing desegregation plan.

-Universities and colleges have no "academic freedom" privilege to keep confidential the peer review records when accused of discrimination in their faculty-tenure decisions.


-Schools that permit extracurricular clubs to meet on school property cannot bar student prayer and worship groups from having the same access.

-States may outlaw the religious use of peyote, an illegal drug, by members of the Native American Church. The ruling said state laws neutrally applied to all citizens are not invalid even if they adversely affect one group's religious beliefs.

-The sale of religious items may be taxes by states just like any other merchandise sales.


-People charged with child abuse do not have an absolute right to at least one face-to-face confrontation in the courtroom with their young accusers. The ruling lets states use various means to protect some children from courtroom trauma.

-Police making a lawful arrest at someone's home do not need a court warrant to search the entire home if they have a reasonable suspicion of danger.

-Overnight guests have the same constitutional protection as their hosts against unwarranted police arrests.

-Prosecutors may not introduce evidence that was unlawfully obtained by police to rebut the trial testimony of any defense witness other than the defendant.

-Statements obtained in violation of a defendant's Sixth Amendment right to legal help may be used to rebut his trial testimony. The ruling extended decisions that allow such use of statements obtained in violation of the defendant's Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

-Police videotapes of routine booking questions asked of suspected drunken drivers may be used as trial evidence even if the suspects were not given so-called Miranda warnings.

-The requirement that police warn suspects of their right to remain silent and have a lawyer's help do not apply when jailhouse undercover agents try to trick suspects into making incriminating statements.

-The justices, ruling in several cases, dramatically curtailed the right of defendants convicted in state courts to appeal in federal court.


-States may make the death penalty the only punishment possible for some convicted murderers by mandating it if at least one aggravating factor and no mitigating factor is found. The ruling upheld Pennsylvania's capital punishment law.

-Judges may decide whether those convicted of capital murder are sentenced to death or life imprisonment. Ruling upheld Arizona's law.

-Sentencing juries cannot ignore asserted mitigating factors even if they fail to agree unanimously that such factors are present. The ruling invalidated a key provision in North Carolina's law.


-The federal agency protecting the pensions of more than 30 million American workers has the authority to order employers to restore terminated pension plans.

-States and private citizens may sue under federal antitrust law in efforts to break up business mergers.

-Hospitals and nursing homes may sue states officials over reimbursement rates for providing Medicare services.