WASHINGTON, June 27 (Reuters) - The just-ended U.S. Supreme Court term gave President George W. Bush a historic victory on gun rights for Americans but handed him a bitter defeat on his war on terrorism policy regarding Guantanamo Bay prisoners.
As those two landmark 5-4 rulings illustrated, the nation’s highest court remained closely divided between conservative and liberal factions, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often casting the decisive vote in the most important cases.
The court, in an opinion by Kennedy, outlawed the death penalty for child rapists. But in an earlier ruling it upheld the three-drug cocktail commonly used for lethal injections, ending a temporary nationwide moratorium on executions.
The court limited some securities fraud lawsuits and slashed the punitive damages that ExxonMobil Corp must pay for the 1989 oil spill off Alaska, but issued a series of pro-employee rulings on workplace discrimination.
Legal experts said the court under Chief Justice John Roberts, who was appointed by Bush, still had an overall conservative bent in the 2007-08 term that ended on Thursday.
“We are still learning the personality of the Roberts court,” said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union. “Last term, the court launched an aggressive assault on core principles affecting race and abortion.
“This term, the court generally spoke with a softer voice,” he said. “Even when speaking softly, however, the court’s instincts remain fundamentally conservative on most issues.”
Shapiro said the rulings on guns and the Guantanamo prisoners could transform the nation’s legal and political landscape.
In a win for Bush, the court recognized, for the first time in American history, an individual right to bear arms under the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It rejected the argument that the right was tied to service in a state militia.
The court struck down two parts of the country’s strictest gun control law adopted 32 years ago in Washington, D.C. — a handgun ban and a requirement that firearms kept at home be unloaded and disassembled or bound by a trigger lock.
But in a stinging rebuke for Bush, the court rejected a centerpiece of his policy in the war on terrorism for the detainees held at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
In another opinion authored by the moderate conservative Kennedy, the court said the prisoners have the right to challenge before U.S. federal judges in Washington, D.C., their years of detention and to seek their release.
In balancing civil liberties versus national security, the opinion marked the fourth time the court had rejected Bush’s policies in the war on terrorism adopted after the Sept. 11 attacks.
On other issues, the court’s conservative majority held.
It upheld a federal child pornography law and upheld a state law requiring voters show photo identification, a ruling that could keep some blacks, poor people and other traditional Democratic supporters from voting in the November election.
Last term, the court appeared especially bitterly divided, with the liberals accusing Bush’s two conservative appointees, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, of trying to overturn precedent.
“This term is an attempt to behave more like a court and less like a political institution,” said Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein, the creator of SCOTUSblog, a Web site the follows the court.
Goldstein said the November presidential election will be crucial for the court’s future direction, as the next president could make several appointments.
The most likely retirements over the next four years could come from the court’s liberal members, as Goldstein citing Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and David Souter.
If presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama wins in November’s election, the court’s balance could remain 5-4 between conservatives and liberals, he said.
But if presumptive Republican president nominee John McCain wins and names the replacements for the liberals, there could be a “a sea change in jurisprudence,” with court moving dramatically to the right, Goldstein predicted.
McCain has promised to appoint justices like Roberts, Alito and the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. Obama, a former constitutional law professor at the University of Chicago, is expected to name more liberal justices. (Editing by Deborah Charles and Jackie Frank)