Washington (AFP) - US conservatives were expecting some major wins at the Supreme Court this year, but several dramatic twists -- including the death of a justice -- reconfigured the bench and liberals ended up scoring the most influential victories.
The high court's 2015-2016 term ended with a bang this week when it struck down a Texas law restricting access to abortion -- the most important ruling in a generation on the hot-button issue, and a big win for "pro-choice" activists.
The 5-3 decision by a short-handed court -- down one justice since the death of veteran conservative Antonin Scalia in February -- marked a major setback for evangelical Christians and conservatives opposed to abortion.
Just a few days before, the top court made a surprise ruling in favor of an affirmative action program at the University of Texas, meaning that race and ethnicity can be taken into account when deciding college admissions.
Once again, the country's liberals cried victory.
And in March, a 4-4 deadlock effectively affirmed the right of public sector unions to collect fees from non-members, in a setback for conservatives.
Lee Epstein, a Supreme Court expert based at Washington University in St Louis, said Scalia's death played a major role in some of the term's key decisions.
On affirmative action, a narrow 4-3 ruling would instead have been a 4-4 deadlock, leaving in place lower court rulings upholding the plan -- but setting no legal precedent.
In the unions case, Scalia would likely have turned the tables against them.
But she said his death was not the only explanation for the court's shift to the left.
"The move to the left started a few years ago, not this term," Epstein told AFP.
"Our data show that the 2014 term and now the 2015 term were the most liberal since the 1960s."
The Obama administration however did not emerge from the court's term unscathed, including big defeats for the Democratic president's sweeping immigration plan and his efforts to curb carbon emissions.
- Problematic tie votes -
Scalia, who died unexpectedly in February, espoused deeply conservative views during his three decades at the court. A staunch defender of gun rights and the death penalty, the Roman Catholic justice was also openly opposed to abortion, gay marriage and affirmative action.
Without him, the court is now evenly split between conservatives (Chief Justice John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) and progressives (Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan).
That distribution dramatically increases the chances of deadlocks on the court.
Kennedy, a key swing voter between the bench's conservatives and progressives on social issues, has become even more crucial in a court with just eight of the nine seats filled, sometimes joining the liberal wing.
Worried that a court once dominated by conservatives under Scalia could tip in the liberals' favor, President Barack Obama's Republican foes in the Senate have refused to vote on his nominee to replace Scalia, Merrick Garland, and insisted the decision wait until after voters choose Obama's successor in November.
But conservatives nevertheless paid the price, suffering a series of defeats on key rulings.
- Impartial or politicized? -
Some analysts say the court is on a definite leftward trajectory, but others disagree.
"Rather than a turn leftward, I think what we are seeing is how much the Supreme Court, especially Justice Kennedy who is still the swing justice, wants the court to be seen as a non-partisan institution in a very partisan election year," said Thomas Lee of Fordham University School of Law.
Breyer himself insisted the court was "functioning" in an AFP interview in May, dismissing criticism that the court was politicized or hampered with one justice short.
A guardian of the US Constitution, the Supreme Court has the last word on the most salient issues impacting American life, and makes rulings in contentious cases pitting the legislative branch of the government against the executive branch.
Of an average of roughly 8,000 petitions it receives each term, the court only grants and hears oral arguments about one percent of the time.