Because the public's interest in the Court is notoriously weak and its memory short, the relevant question in deciding whether the Court can be a mobilizing force in the 2008 election for ideological groups is therefore not "how were cases decided in OT2006" (the focus of commentary so far), but instead "how will OT2007's cases be decided?" And I think that the existing and anticipated docket strongly suggests that, during OT2007, the outcomes of the highest-profile cases will be perceived as quite liberal.
As a consequence, I think it is exceptionally unlikely that next Term will end as this one did, with front-page stories and reports leading the evening news describing the Court as profoundly conservative, with laudatory commentary by the right and howls of protest from the left. Instead, we will see (mistaken) talk of the "surprising" tack by the Court back to the left and (among the legal glitterati) the "good Kennedy, bad Kennedy" phenomenon in which his ideological views seemingly oscillate dramatically from Term to Term. In fact, this commentary will be wrong: the Justices and their views will be exactly the same come June 2008; it is the cases that will be different.
Equally or more important when considering the potential electoral consequences of the Term, the leading cases will be ones in which the more liberal position is distinctly - even profoundly - unpopular with conservatives, creating the prospect that the Court will serve as a rallying cry to mobilize the electorate. Even if the left ultimately does not win all of the five most significant cases of this Supreme Court Term, that wing of the Court will carry the banner for accused terrorists, crack dealers, child pornographers, child rapists, and those who want to forbid gun possession.First, consider the existing docket. The most prominent decision, by far, will come in the cases brought by detainees held at Guantanamo Bay as accused terrorists (see, for example, Lyle's post here). The conventional wisdom is that the detainees will win. I agree.
The next-highest-profile case involves the crack-powder disparity in sentencing (Kimbrough v. United States) discussed in this post by Lyle. This is something of a "throwback" case; crack is not as prominent an issue as it once was. Nonetheless, it is one with which the public is familiar. The particular question presented is whether, in the wake of the holding of Booker v. United States (opinion here) that the Sentencing Guidelines are advisory rather than mandatory, district judges can refuse to follow the crack Sentencing Guideline (which imposes a 100:1 ratio to cocaine sentences by weight) on the ground that they disagree with the policy judgment underlying it. I think that the government is overwhelmingly likely to lose.
A third significant and publicly accessible case involves the constitutionality of a particular federal regulation of child pornography (United States v. Williams) (Lyle's post here). The PROTECT Act makes it a crime to distribute something in a manner that shows you believe, or causes someone else to believe, it constitutes child pornography. The case is a successor to Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition (opinion here), which invalidated as overbroad in violation of the First Amendment a prior statutory provision making it a crime to possess images that "appear to be" or "convey the impression" that they are child pornography. The new statute focused on the act of pandering the material, rather than its possession. A panel of the court of appeals held that the Supreme Court would not find the change significant enough to save the statute. I agree, though the question is difficult and likely to be close. The Free Speech Coalition majority was fairly sweeping on this point (the Court divided seven to two). In particular, Justice Kennedy's opinion for the five-Justice majority (himself and the left) indicated that this type of fix would be insufficient because it would still make unlawful the distribution of material that is not in fact pornographic.
So, in the three most significant cases of the Term granted thus far, the position of the Court's more liberal members will be (in the caricature that comes with much popular reporting on the Court) that accused terrorists deserve more rights, crack dealers deserve lighter sentences, and the First Amendment protects would-be distributors of child porn.
But Tom, in Ditech's words "people are smart" -- I think we're beginning to see through the right-wing "conservative philosophy" yoyo bullshit, don't you? The argument is that people are stupid. I respectfully disagree.