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GINSBURG LEANS TO LEFT IN 1ST YEAR

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Ruth Bader Ginsburg has found a comfortable home at the Supreme Court's center in her first year as a justice. But her votes in the most ideologically divisive cases are more liberal than some had expected.

"I think she feels greater freedom now," said Paul Rothstein, a Georgetown University law professor. "On the Supreme Court she influences the law, while when on the appeals court she was implementing the law."Before being named to the high court by President Clinton last summer, Ginsburg had supplanted her reputation as a pioneering advocate of women's rights with a 13-year record as a centrist judge.

Conservative commentator Bruce Fein said Ginsburg's performance as a justice "clearly places her in the liberal bloc."

One hot-button issue for many conservatives is property rights, and the court last week greatly enhanced private property owners' rights against government regulation that impedes the use of their land.

The vote was 5-4, with Ginsburg joining Justices Harry A. Blackmun, John Paul Stevens and David H. Souter in dissent.

That coalition dissented from a 5-4 ruling that allowed police to continue questioning criminal suspects who make what may be ambiguous requests for legal help. The same four also dissented from

a decision that allowed juries choosing between life in prison or death for convicted murderers to be told the defendant already is under a death sentence for another crime.

Blackmun and Stevens are considered the court's most liberal members. Over the past two terms, Souter has become perhaps the court's most liberal centrist.

Ginsburg also was on the winning side in several important cases decided along the court's ideological fault lines.

She joined a 5-4 ruling that barred states from imposing drug-possession taxes in addition to criminal penalties.

The court's conservative bloc - Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas - dissented, along with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a centrist.

Ginsburg, voting in her first church-state case, joined a 6-3 majority this week in ruling that New York unlawfully created a special school district for a Hasidic Jewish community. The decision sparked an enraged dissent from Scalia, who was joined by Rehnquist and Thomas.

Ginsburg also joined a 6-3 ruling that said keeping people off juries based on their gender is just as unlawful as excluding them based on their race. Rehnquist, Scalia and Thomas dissented.

"She's not as extravagant as Harry Blackmun, but surely she's with the liberal crowd on virtually every tough issue," Fein said.

"With Ginsburg and Souter most often moving toward those on the left, only O'Connor and (Justice Anthony M.) Kennedy are up for grabs in some cases," he added.

The court's 1993-94 term ended Thursday, when the justices were to release all remaining decisions. But University of Southern California law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said Ginsburg already has had a strong first year.

"She seems more willing than most new justices are to go her own way, whether writing a concurring opinion to separate herself somewhat from the majority or explaining a dissent," he said. "She seems to be in the middle, more toward the left than toward the right."

Statistics for the term so far show Ginsburg has been most likely to vote with Souter.

Of the 78 cases decided by signed opinions, she and Souter have voted for the same result in 62. Thirty of those decisions were unanimous.

Her most unlikely ally has been Thomas. She and he have voted for the same result in 51 of the 78 cases.