WASHINGTON — A historic Supreme Court term ended with a flourish of major rulings that marked a bitter defeat for racial minorities and a groundbreaking victory for gay rights, all in the space of a day.
The justices struck down parts of two federal laws — the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act — that were passed with huge bipartisan majorities of Congress.
Yet only one justice at the center of this conservative-leaning court, Anthony Kennedy, was on the winning side both times. Kennedy joined the four more conservative justices on voting rights and he was with his liberal colleagues in the gay marriage case.
Just in that 24-hour span, the rulings demonstrated two truths about the court under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts.
The 58-year-old lawyer who cut his teeth in the Reagan administration put to rest any questions he may have raised about his conservative credentials a year earlier when he cast the deciding vote to uphold President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
Roberts has shown himself to be a skillful judge who can get even ideologically differing colleagues to agree on narrow rulings that help form the basis for more definitive later judgments, as happened in the voting rights case.
The chief justice sees a benefit to the court as an institution and to his longer-term goal of saying, “We could go farther here, but let’s wait and see,” said Kermit Roosevelt, a University of Pennsylvania law professor and former high court law clerk.
But Roberts can move the court no further to the right than Kennedy is willing to go.
Divisive civil rights cases dominated the high court’s work in the past nine months, including a challenge to affirmative action in higher education that ended in a compromise ruling.