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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Court Focused on Equality, Free Speech

WASHINGTON -- Forget the usual labels: Liberal or conservative. Pro-government or anti-government. Activist or restrained.

The major rulings of the Supreme Court's 1995-96 term, which ended Monday, can be explained by the justices' allegiance to two constitutional principles: strict equal treatment under law and freedom of speech, broadly defined.

Those two principles bring together the justices from across the spectrum, even if they yield rulings that confound the usual analysis.

Consider the term's three leading civil rights rulings. The justices struck down an anti-gay state amendment in Colorado, opened the Virginia Military Institute, or VMI, to women and threw out the majority-black congressional districts in Texas and North Carolina.

Each resulted from a strict application of the 14th Amendment, which says no state shall "deny to any person the equal protection of the laws.''

Colorado's voters in 1992 passed a state initiative known as Amendment 2 that barred gays and lesbians from winning legal protections against discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

Normally, the conservative-leaning Supreme Court upholds state laws and defers to the wishes of the voters. But not this time.

The equal-protection clause demands "the law's neutrality when the rights of persons are at stake. ... Amendment 2 classifies homosexuals to make them unequal to everyone else,'' wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for a 6-3 majority.

VMI had enrolled only young men for its 157 years and officials of the military academy argued that its harsh, physically demanding style of education was unsuited to young women. Federal judges in Virginia could not bring themselves to end the all-male tradition.

But by a 7-1 vote, the Supreme Court justices ruled that the equal-protection clause does not permit the "categorical exclusion'' of women from a state-funded school.

But the equal-treatment principle does not always work in favor of traditional victims of discrimination, such as racial minorities or women. As the Supreme Court showed last term, the rule can also work against them.

In a blow to affirmative action, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to rule that "racial preferences'' in public contracting are unconstitutional, except to remedy proven discrimination.

The same 5-4 majority also struck down three "majority-minority'' districts in Texas and one in North Carolina. The equal protection clause does not allow state officials to use race as a "predominant factor'' in drawing electoral lines, the Supreme Court said.

Free speech is a similarly cherished constitutional principle but also one that sometimes yields surprising results.

This term was also a good one for the free-speech principle.

In May, the justices struck down laws in Rhode Island and nine other states that prohibited the advertising of beer and liquor prices -- which spells trouble for President Bill Clinton's proposal to ban cigarette ads directed at youth.

Last week, it struck down part of the post-Watergate federal campaign spending law that limited how much money political parties can spend to promote their views. The government said too much money in politics corrupts the electoral process but the court said that parties are free to spend as they choose.