Consensus reigns in high court's early decisions

By Mark Sherman

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A couple of angry dissents aside, the Supreme Court has shown a remarkable degree of consensus in the nearly two dozen opinions issued so far this term.

Fifteen of the 23 decisions have been unanimous and four have drawn just one dissenting vote. No case has ended in a 5-4 split in which the liberals and conservatives are on opposite sides. But the term is young, with 50 or so decisions to come.

Broad agreement is not that unusual in the court's early decisions. Indeed, a major reason they're issued more quickly is that there is general accord about the outcome.

But the decisions to date include four unanimous opinions in cases in which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce supported the losing side. The cases involved claims of workplace discrimination, retaliation concerning alleged discrimination, an automaker's negligence involving seat belts and corporate rights under the federal open records law. The votes are notable if only because some critics have complained that the court -- the conservative-leaning justices, in particular -- is too business-friendly.

Robin Conrad, head of the chamber's legal team, said too many cases important to the business world have yet to be decided, including a major class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Inc., to read too much into the early returns. But Conrad said, "I have always been critical of the claim that this court has knee-jerk, pro-business inclinations."

The strongest words so far have been in dissents from Justices Samuel Alito and Antonin Scalia. Alito, the lone voice opposing the court's ruling in favor of protesters at military funerals, wrote that his colleagues were sanctioning a "malevolent verbal attack" on a dead Marine and his grieving family.

Scalia, in a case about the constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses, said the majority engaged in a "gross distortion" of the law and a "vain attempt to make the incredible plausible."

The justices also have so far largely managed to avoid 4-4 splits in cases in which Justice Elena Kagan did not participate because of her previous Justice Department job. The only exception in the 15 cases decided to date without Kagan has been the dispute between the Omega watch company and Costco. Without Kagan, the court's 4-4 vote left in place a lower court ruling that Costco violated copyright law by selling Omega watches at a discount without the Swiss watch maker's permission.

Published: Mon, Mar 14, 2011