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Harmony on the High Bench, At Least So Far

March 10, 1993

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The 35 signed decisions issued so far in the Supreme Court’s 1992-93 term have caused little dissension among the justices. Eighteen of the 35 were decided by unanimous votes, and seven were decided on rulings of 8-1.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who in 18 years has built a solid reputation as a thoughtful jurist who marches to a different drum, was the sole dissenter in four of the seven 8-1 votes.

Stevens alone refused to join rulings that limited the number of taxpayers who may claim deductions for home offices and that allowed state agencies to immediately appeal trial court denials their 11th Amendment immunity claims.

He also balked at decisions that offered fewer health-benefit options to employees eligible for worker compensation and that said a federal law allowing some personal-injury lawsuits against the government does not apply in Antarctica.

The relative harmony is not unusual this early in the year.

The court tends to save a disproportionate percentage of the more divisive cases until the waning weeks of a term in June.

Still-to-be-decided disputes that could divide the court include these:

-May communities ban animal sacrifices in church rituals?

-May religious groups be banned from using public schools when classes are not in session if some non-religious groups are given such access?

-Is the government’s policy of stopping Haitians on the high seas and returning them without considering their pleas for political asylum legal?

-May states impose longer prison terms for crimes if they were motivated by bigotry?

Rounding out the 35 cases decided so far: four votes ended up 7-2; two were 6-3; and four caused a 5-4 split. --- More Cases Flow In, Fewer Stick Around for Long

The high court in recent years has limited the number of cases to which it grants full review, and this year the strategy again has led to a shortage of cases available to be argued next month.

Instead of conducting oral arguments for the customary 12 cases during the last week of April, the justices will hear one.

In addition to the 35 decisions already issued, the justices are expected to issue 76 more before beginning their summer recess in June or July.

That would give them a total of 111 signed decisions, four more than the 107 they produced last term, which was the fewest since 1970.

The number of signed decisions has been decreasing since the 1985-86 term, when there were 147.

Ten years ago, during the 1982-83 term, the court issued 152 signed decisions.

Meanwhile, the number of new cases seeking Supreme Court review continues to rise, up about 9 percent over last term. Of the thousands of cases to reach the justices each term, 98 in every 100 now get turned away. In those cases, the rulings of lower courts are left intact but no national precedent is set. --- White Biography to be Written by His Former Law Clerk

A biography of Justice Byron R. White, the court’s senior member, will be written by one of his former law clerks, University of Chicago law professor Dennis Hutchinson.

″It’s an unauthorized project, but the justice did wish me good luck,″ said Hutchinson, who clerked for White in 1975-76 and visited with him last week ″to break the bad news.″

Hutchinson, who expects to complete the book by late 1996, said he believes White is ″terribly misunderstood″ and ″has led such an interesting life.″ The book is to be published by the Free Press, a division of Macmillan Inc.

Hutchinson discounted recent speculation that White, 75, is considering retiring soon. Saying that the subject did not come up in his discussion with White, Hutchinson added, ″I think some folks have added two and two and come up with 16.″

White was named to the court by President John F. Kennedy in 1962.

No other biography of any other current member is in the works, but biographies are being written about two retired justices, William J. Brennan and Lewis F. Powell. --- Oops

Sometimes the best-planned rhetoric can be led astray by an erring printer or proofreader, such as in a Georgia case denied high court review earlier this term.

The well-organized brief apparently meant at one point to remind the justices just how important it is to keep government off the backs of the people. ″Freedom constitutes the bedroom of this Republic,″ it stated.

The lawyers probably meant ″bedrock.″

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