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Top court shows its new tilt

Conservative swing shows in decisions on significant free speech, religion cases.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court liberated corporate and union political spending, limited students’ speech and shielded the White House faith-based program from legal challenge Monday in 5-4 rulings that pointed up the court’s shift to the right.

President Bush’s two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, were front and center. They wrote the main opinions in those three decisions — including the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” free-speech case — as well as another ruling that had been sought by the administration and business groups in an environmental case.

Five justices — Roberts, Alito, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — formed the majority in each decision. The court’s liberals, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter and John Paul Stevens, dissented each time.

With its term rapidly nearing an end, the court has perhaps the biggest issue of the year still to decide: whether public school districts can take account of race in assigning students to schools. Many court watchers are expecting a similar ideological split, with conservatives limiting the use of race.

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards was among those who bemoaned the court’s rightward tilt.

The court “is moving the right wing’s agenda faster than we’ve seen in decades — slamming the courthouse doors in the faces of ordinary people, favoring big businesses over civil rights and undermining protections for women and the environment.”

But White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Monday’s decisions included a loss for the administration in the campaign finance case.

“… we can all be confident that we have fantastic Supreme Court justices. These are the type of people that the president wanted to have on the bench,” Perino said. “Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito are proving themselves to be ones who have the intellectual vigor that they can bring to the bench.”

The campaign finance ruling, opening the way for deep-pocketed interests to broadcast so-called issue advertising close to elections, was a clear demonstration that changes in the court’s lineup can alter a case’s outcome.

In 2003, the court upheld the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, which included a provision that barred interest groups from running corporate- or union-funded radio and TV ads that mention a candidate’s name within 30 days of a primary or 60 days of a general election.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was in the majority four years ago. On Monday, Alito, who took O’Connor’s seat, joined Roberts’ opinion taking a dim view of restrictions on those ads.

Although the court divided along liberal-conservative lines, interest groups across the political spectrum were allied in opposition to the advertising restrictions.

Separately, Roberts endorsed First Amendment limits in his majority opinion in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case. Schools can regulate student expression that advocates the use of illegal drugs, he said.

Alito wrote the court’s opinion that said ordinary taxpayers cannot challenge a White House initiative that helps religious charities get a share of federal money.

The decision blocks a lawsuit by a group of atheists and agnostics that objects to government conferences in which administration officials encourage religious charities to apply for federal grants.

President Bush’s two appointees, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, were front and center.

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