WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The just-ended U.S. Supreme Court term showed that President George W. Bush's two appointees have shifted the court sharply to the right on divisive social issues like abortion and civil rights law.
In a series of bitterly contested 5-4 rulings, the court's conservative majority, bolstered by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, has unsettled established law and turned the court in a new direction that could continue long after Bush leaves office, legal experts said.
For conservatives, Bush's two appointments may be his greatest accomplishment while liberals expressed alarm that Roberts and Alito, both in their 50s and the court's youngest members, may be voting to curtail rights and liberties well into the future.
"They are everything conservatives could have hoped for and everything liberals feared," said Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky. "This is an extremely conservative court, perhaps the most conservative since the 1930s."
The high court ended its term on Thursday by striking down public school programs that use race to assign students to schools, casting doubt on integration efforts nationwide.
The justices previously approved a nationwide ban on a specific abortion procedure, the first such restriction ever upheld, and it curtailed free-speech rights for students.
The court made it more difficult for women to sue over pay discrimination and said certain broadcast ads were permitted just before an election, weakening congressional efforts to curb the influence of money on politics. It also ruled taxpayers cannot sue over Bush's efforts to help religious groups get federal funds for social programs
"This has been a term in which the new conservative majority has flexed its muscle," said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.
"It did not overrule any major constitutional decisions, but it left many in shambles. The settled rules on race, religion, speech, abortion and the right to sue have all been unsettled," he said.
Legal experts said the shift largely stemmed from Bush's appointment of the conservative Alito to replace the more moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired.
"What a difference a single justice makes," said Goodwin Liu, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley. O'Connor undoubtedly would have voted differently than Alito in the abortion, pay discrimination, campaign finance and race-in-schools cases, he said.
Of all the Supreme Court justices, Roberts and Alito voted together most often during their first full term together, in 88 percent of the rulings, according to statistics kept by the Georgetown University Law Center.
Legal experts said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a more moderate conservative, for the most part joined Roberts, Alito, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
A big exception in an important case came when Kennedy agreed with the four liberals and handed Bush a major defeat by ruling that U.S. environmental officials can regulate greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming.
Still the term left the liberals -- Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Stephen Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- often reading their blistering dissents from the bench, dismayed over the court's new direction.
Democratic presidential candidates have seized on the rulings in an effort to make the high court a campaign issue.
"The Supreme Court's hard right turn is another reminder of what is at stake for Democrats in the 2008 election," former Sen. John Edwards said.
After its usual three-month summer recess, the court will return to the bench in October. In a surprise move on Friday, the court said it would hear appeals in its upcoming term by the Guantanamo prisoners held in Bush's war on terrorism.