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Supreme Court adheres to judicial restraint in latest term

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The U.S. Supreme Court issued its share of controversial decisions during the 2013-14 term, but the justices' rulings were mostly carefully tailored, legal analysts say.

The high court declined to overrule precedence in many cases.

"I found the court to be relatively cautious this term," said Glenn Smith, a constitutional law professor at California Western School of Law. "Even those [decisions] going in the conservative direction -- upholding the prayers that begin the town council session in Greece, N.Y. -- were done along fairly conventional lines. It was about the facts. They declined to get rid of the endorsement test.

"Justice (Stephen) Breyer said, 'We just disagree about how we interpret those facts.'"

The Supreme Court also weighed in on several intellectual property issues this term, continuing to shape the landscape for inventors and patent attorneys.

Smith said the Supreme Court's caution was attributed to its evenly divided number of conservative and liberal justices, and its adherence to judicial restraint -- the philosophy of not going out of the way to radically change the law.

But even in cases where you'd expect their partisan stripes to show, the court behaved along legal lines.

Breyer, a member of the so-called liberal block, voted with the majority in upholding the right of Michigan voters to ban affirmative action in their state constitution.

He reasoned that the Constitution "foresees the ballot box, not the courts" to accept or reject affirmative action policies.

The decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action was 6-2 with Justice Elena Kagan recusing herself because of her previous involvement as United States solicitor general.

"If it was purely ideological, then it would have been 5-3 with Breyer not joining the majority," Smith said of the justice who is a noted fan of affirmative action. "I don't think this was an especially partisan term, any more so than others."

In the most noncautious ruling of the term, Smith said, the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the privacy rights of individuals.

The decision addressed a pair of cases involving cellphone searches by police. In a case the originated in San Diego (Riley v. California), two state courts held that anything found on a suspect, including cellphones, could be searched without a warrant, while in United States v. Wurie, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that a similar search violated the Fourth Amendment.

"I don’t think people expected a unanimous decision in that case, and they certainly didn't expect a unanimously liberal decision in favor of privacy and defendants' rights," Smith said.

The California Western professor said this term reminded him of a saying he gives to all of his constitutional law students.

"Obviously, it's naive to think politics are irrelevant to the court," he said, "but it's also just as wrong to think that it's all about politics. Yes, ideology plays a role because they're human, but they're also judges."

The court's political leanings were even harder to find in its decisions related to patent law, an area that is typically nonpartisan.

But the justices didn't make many friends among inventors.

"What they've actually done this term, across the board in all of the patent opinions they've issued, is the court has generally made it modestly more difficult for inventors to obtain patents and to enforce those patents," said San Diego attorney Michael Rosen, a partner with Fish & Richardson who focuses on IP litigation.

In a way, the justices are trying to address patent reform from the bench.

"While the Supreme Court exists, in theory, in a bubble, independent of the legislative branch, it seems fairly clear that they're responding in one way or another to the efforts by Congress to try to rein in the abuses of so-called patent trolls," Rosen said.

In one of the most high-profile patent cases this term, Alice Corp. v. CLS Bank, the justices made it a little bit harder to get a patent in the area of computer software.

And in another example of the court making it more difficult for inventors to enforce their patents, the Supreme Court ruled that defendants in patent cases can recover attorney's fees if they're the prevailing party, under certain circumstances.

The rulings came in a pair of cases decided on the same day: Octane Fitness v. Icon Health and Fitness and Highmark Inc. v. Allcare Health Management Systems Inc.

Rosen said, however, it's interesting to note that the court acted in a united voice in most patent cases.

"Almost all of the (patent) decisions were unanimous or nearly unanimous," Rosen said. "It's helpful to see the court speak with one voice on patent issues, even if what the court is saying is less than clear."

He said the decision in Alice v. CLS Bank raises almost as many questions as it resolves.

"But it's encouraging to see the court involved," Rosen said.

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