ATTORNEY GENERAL Edwin Meese, in a speech to the American Bar Association, has made crystal clear the administration's judgment on the Supreme Court term just concluded. Disappointment and even real annoyance ran through Mr. Meese's assessment. The court's predominantly conservative decisions in the 1983-84 term had won praise from the executive branch. But all that has changed: the justices' recent opinions have been more centrist. The tribunal is not, as some critics had feared, "already a Reagan court," and the attorney general is not pleased.
There were no earth-shaking, new, liberal precedents set this term -- no school desegregation, one-man/one-vote or abortion cases. Criminal defendants did win the right to have court-appointed psychiatrists, and the police were barred from shooting unarmed fleeing suspects. But these rulings were balanced by government victories in cases involving search and seizure, Miranda warnings and prisoners' rights.
The government won 80 percent of the cases in which it participated this term. The attorney general, nevertheless, appears to be most upset by a handful of cases in a single area: church-state relations. The refusal of the justices to accept administration arguments on the proper relationship between religion and public life has caused much disappointment. Earlier, the court had sanctioned Christmas displays on public property and the use of public funds to pay chaplains. But in this term, moments of silence for prayer, state sabbath laws and public assistance to parochial schools were all disapproved.
These church-state cases were correctly decided, in our view; the principles on which they rely should be reaffirmed. That may not happen, though, and in the long run the attorney general may have less to complain about than he would have his listeners believe. The Alabama moment-of-silence decision, for example, implicitly authorizes such observances in schools as long as they are not specifically designated for prayer. A number of states have already amended this observance to comply with the court's ruling without greatly changing what actually goes on in the classroom. The Connecticut sabbath law was unusually generous in accommodating religious practice and would have severely disrupted labor relations and commerce if it had been allowed to stand. As it is, the court's decision is unlikely to have major implications in other states.
The parochial school cases were the most important, and both were decided on 5-4 votes. It is by now routine to read that five justices are over 76 and that the consistent liberal votes on the court come primarily from this group. There is a good chance that the administration will reopen these questions before a changed and more receptive Supreme Court before too long.