It ruled against censorship of the Internet and for the right of individual states to ban doctor-administered euthanasia ("assisted suicide"). It also enhanced the power of the president by giving him the long-sought right to veto sections of Bills he dislikes rather than the whole Bill.
The least conditional of the rulings was that Congress had acted unconstitutionally when it legislated last year to censor the Internet. The decision, the first sortie by the top judicial authority into cyberspace, said that in trying to protect children, Congress had violated the constitutional right of adults to free speech, and it struck out that section of the legislation on "decency" in communications.
On assisted suicide, the court upheld laws in New York and Washington state that make it a crime for a doctor to end the life of a terminally ill patient, even if the patient is judged mentally capable of making the decision. It ruled that assisted suicide was different from allowing a patient to refuse treatment for a terminal illness, a right recognised as constitutional in 1990. The "right to assistance in committing suicide," it ruled, "is not a fundamental liberty interest".
Observers said the ruling was unlikely to be the last word, as it left states free to pass their own legislation. Oregon has already passed such a decision by referendum, but that is facing its own legal challenge.
Constitutionally, the most important judgment is the new right granted the president, because it alters the balance of power between the president (the executive) and Congress (the legislature).
Until now, the president has had to decide whether the merits of the Bill before him outweigh what he does not like or not.
The veto was all or nothing; it could not be discriminatory. Supporters of what has become known as the "line-item veto" argued that it would considerably speed up legislation because it effectively limits the ability of Congress to make one item in a Bill conditional on another.
The most recent example of such congressional "blackmail" was two weeks ago, when the Republican majority tried to link federal assistance for flood victims to a project of its own. The result was that President Bill Clinton vetoed a Bill that he otherwise supported wholeheartedly.
Eventually, a combination of furious public opinion and divisions among Republicans led to the removal of the offending section, and Mr Clinton signed the measure.
It will in future be much more difficult for Congress to employ such tactics and means a president like Mr Clinton, whose own party does not control the House of Representatives or the Senate, will be much less hamstrung in what he can do.
The court did, however, hold open the right of elected representatives to challenge the ruling if they felt their rights had been adversely affected by a specific presidential decision.Reuse content