WASHINGTON — The new Supreme Court is more conservative than it has been in decades. It's also meaner.
It is a dream come true for Republican presidencies dating back to the "strict constructionist" court aspirations of President Richard Nixon and now made possible by the conservative George W. Bush.
Before closing down for the summer last month, the high court tossed out a flurry of decisions that overturned or reinterpreted long-standing liberal precedents.
The court under Chief Justice John Roberts seems intent on rolling back advances in race and gender relations that have helped America achieve a more equal and humane society.
The 5-4 decisions of the conservative court dealt with race, abortion, free speech, church-state relations and a host of other issues. They also showed a pro-business and anti-consumer slant.
The majority justices are running counter to the current trend against rightwing ideologues and a power-grabbing unilateral presidency.
On race, the court apparently has decided to return to the "good old days" when separate was considered equal when it came to racial segregation, a concept that the high court discarded in the 1954 landmark decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kans., which desegregated the nation's schools.
Last week, the Supreme Court junked the Brown rule when it struck down the use of race in school admissions in Seattle and Louisville. Officials had used race as a factor in school assignments in order to build diversity.
The historic Brown ruling paved the way for the banning of segregated public facilities, hotels, restaurants and theaters.
The Roberts court also upheld an unconditional ban on the procedure that opponents dub "partial birth abortion." Supporters of abortion rights see this decision as a harbinger of doom for the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that legalized abortion.
The court also ruled that public school principals and teachers can discipline students who display signs or wear t-shirts that carry messages counter to the schools' anti-drug policies. The decision overturned a 1969 ruling that students do not shed their rights "at the schoolhouse door."
And the justices threw out a 1911 ruling that barred manufacturers from setting minimum retail prices on goods.
In a blow to the principle of separation of church and state, the court rejected a challenge by the "Freedom From Religion Foundation" against a White House program that helps church charities competing with government programs obtain federal grants.
The ruling is a bow to the president who for the first time in history set up a White House office to promote faith-based entities.
The conservative jurists who have won the day in most cases included the usual suspects — Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy. So much for the hope that Kennedy would be as moderate as former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in pivotal cases.
The liberal justices — who were outraged at the court's far-right swing — included John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Breyer summed it up when he said: "It is not often in the law that so few have so quickly changed so much."
And yet, it seems the old cliche that the Supreme Court reads the newspapers has hit home — at least when it comes to the shameful treatment and torture of detainees from Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a surprise ruling, the Court agreed to review whether Guantanamo Bay detainees can use federal courts to challenge their imprisonment, reversing a decision in April not to hear arguments in the case.
With the Roberts Court in command apparently for a long time, all I can say is: "Cry the beloved country."
© 2007 Hearst Newspapers