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SUPREME COURT 'Junior Justice' Stephen Breyer in majority in the 10 most notable cases of the year



Published: Sun, July 3, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Justice Breyer will soon relinquish his position as the newest member of the court.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The power broker at the Supreme Court this term was the "junior justice," Stephen Breyer.

He was on the winning side in the 10 biggest cases of the year, covering capital punishment, medical marijuana, property rights and Ten Commandments displays.

By contrast, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was in the majority only three times as his conservative bloc splintered again and again.

Of course, the top news from the court was the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She announced Friday that she would leave as soon as President Bush's nominee is confirmed.

It is the first vacancy on the court since 1994, the longest stretch since the early 1800s.

Bush could have a second seat to fill should the 80-year-old Rehnquist, who has thyroid cancer, decide to step down, too. The widower announced his illness in October and his future on the court is very much in doubt.

No longer the newbie

Justice O'Connor's pending departure means Justice Breyer finally will shed the "junior justice" title he has held for 11 years. As the newest member of the court, he is saddled with such menial duties as answering the door when justices hold weekly private meetings.

But there was nothing back bench about the performance by the Clinton appointee this session.

The 66-year-old former college professor and congressional lawyer was a pivotal vote in two cases that set a new standard for religious displays in government buildings.

Justice Breyer, known for his amiable style, also is credited with working out a compromise that salvaged federal sentencing guidelines. It was an important decision because about 64,000 people are sentenced in federal courts each year.

"He has such a well-developed sense of diplomacy that it's not surprising to see his long-term moderate vision is now being embraced by the court," said Georgetown University law professor Neal Katyal, a former Breyer law clerk.

'Temperature of society'

Among Justice Breyer's surprises this term was his critical role in two Ten Commandments cases decided on the final day of the term. Together, the rulings made clear that overtly religious displays are unconstitutional, but historic ones are allowed. Justice Breyer was the only justice in the majority on both.

"He has become the most pragmatic person on the court. He has a way of taking the temperature of society," said Marci Hamilton, a former O'Connor clerk who has a new book, "God vs. the Gavel," about courts and religion.




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