The Supreme Court term that ended last week showed a court solidly but less uniformly conservative than the previous term.

During the 1988-89 term conservatives displayed their muscle in major rulings rewriting the nation's civil rights laws and restricting the constitutional right to abortion.

Although the court headed by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist this year again confronted some of the nation's most divisive issues -- including abortion, affirmative action and the right to die -- its decisions were more mixed.

"Despite what appears to be an increasingly coalescing conservative majority, this was a year in which the liberals, and Justice {William J.} Brennan in particular, had some significant victories," said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.

The term ended with the most unexpected win of all for Brennan when the court reaffirmed and broadened congressional power to adopt minority preference plans in an affirmative action case, Metro Broadcasting v. FCC.

The court's four-member liberal wing -- Justices Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, Harry A. Blackmun and John Paul Stevens -- also triumphed in a case that effectively outlawed political patronage practices. The court ruled that refusing to hire, promote or transfer government workers because of their party affiliation or political support violated First Amendment rights.

In a case involving a sweeping school desegregation plan for Kansas City, Mo., the high court upheld the power of federal judges overseeing such cases to order local school boards to increase property taxes to pay for the desegregation plans.

The court also held firm in its view that laws outlawing flag burning violate freedom of speech, with Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony M. Kennedy again joining three liberals -- Brennan, Marshall and Blackmun -- to strike down a federal statute enacted in the wake of last term's flag-burning decision.

"If 1989 was bad news from the court for the civil rights movement, this is considerably better news," Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe said after the FCC ruling.

Although the court in Cruzan v. Missouri said states may demand clear proof that vegetative patients would wish to die before allowing their families to discontinue treatment, eight justices for the first time recognized some degree of constitutional protection for a "right to die," Tribe noted.

The sole dissenter was Scalia, who pleaded unsuccessfully for the court to keep itself out of yet another deeply divisive social issue.

Bemoaning the court's continued involvement in disputes over abortion, Scalia said, "This court need not and has no authority to inject itself into every field of human activity where irrationality and oppression may theoretically occur, and if it tries to do so it will destroy itself."

While the term showed the majority is not prepared to adopt Scalia's restrictive vision of the Constitution and extricate the court from difficult areas, it also illustrated the dominance of a conservative majority unwilling to give broad interpretation to constitutional protections for individual rights.

"It's testimony to how little we've come to expect from the court in recent years that the 1989-90 term must be regarded with a measure of relief," said Elliot Mincberg, legal director of People for the American Way.

University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard said that while "some might characterize it as a term that leaned to surprisingly liberal results, I think that's not quite the right gloss on it."

He said the decisions in which the liberal wing prevailed can be characterized by a deference to federal power -- to Congress in the FCC case; to the courts in the Kansas City schools case. In both of those, as in almost all the notable liberal victories this term, the generally conservative Justice Byron R. White provided the fifth vote.

At the same time, Howard noted, a conservative majority that includes White is willing to defer in most cases to state restrictions on individual rights -- a trend illustrated during this court term in areas such as abortion, the right to die, child pornography (the court upheld a state law criminalizing its private possession) and religious freedom.

In the area of abortion -- the most controversial topic plaguing the court -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor for the first time joined with four liberal justices to strike down an abortion regulation, overturning part of a Minnesota law that required almost all minors to notify both parents of their intent to have an abortion.

But abortion-rights advocates said the low level of protection O'Connor appeared willing to give abortion rights, and her vote to uphold another part of the law that mandated two-parent notification but provided pregnant teenagers the opportunity to seek judicial waiver, bodes ill for their efforts to block an array of other legislative restrictions on abortion.

Duke University law professor Walter Dellinger said it is not clear that the measure of protection O'Connor appears willing to provide for the right to abortion "will necessarily invalidate any restrictions that are out there before legislatures now."

In the right-to-die area, as in the field of abortion, Howard noted, the court "is tolerant of state power and encouraging to state legislatures" while not giving them "carte blanche."

In two significant religion cases, the court's conservative majority likewise signaled its deference to majority rule versus individual rights.

In Oregon v. Smith, the court permitted states to outlaw the use of the mind-altering drug peyote in religious services.

In the decision five justices -- four conservatives and Stevens -- endorsed a new test for determining when laws infringe on the free exercise of religion.

In an opinion by Scalia, the court allowed states to prohibit conduct required by an individual's religion so long as the law applies across-the-board. O'Connor agreed with the result -- permitting Oregon to stop American Indians from using peyote in their religious rituals -- but said the court's new test is "incompatible with our nation's fundamental commitment to individual religious liberty."

As the court in the peyote case gave a narrow reading to the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion, it said the constitutional prohibition on a governmental "establishment" of religion was not violated by a federal law requiring high schools with extracurricular activities to open their doors to student prayer meetings.

The high court's "voice was strongly conservative" in the religion cases, said conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein. The peyote case, he said, "is the most dramatic single decision changing the free exercise clause in the last 30 years. It rewrote the free exercise clause."

But the court's conservative majority showed its upper hand most often in the criminal law area, ruling for the government in 29 of 41 criminal cases.

The court allowed police to stop and question drivers at sobriety checkpoints, for the first time upholding a law enforcement search not based on "individualized suspicion."

It ruled that the Fourth Amendment prohibition against unreasonable search and seizure does not apply to U.S. agents operating overseas. It said police can stop and question suspects on the basis of anonymous telephone tips so long as there is some evidence to back them up.

On the final day of the term, the court said the constitutional right of criminal defendants to confront the witnesses against them does not always require face-to-face meetings, and that states can adopt measures to shield victims of sexual abuse from the trauma of testifying in open court.

The court asserted its pronounced hostility toward death row prisoners who file habeas corpus petitions seeking review of their sentences in federal court. The court threw out six of seven challenges in death penalty cases.

The rulings on capital punishment and the Fourth Amendment prohibitions against illegal search and seizure are "the hidden disasters of the term," said the ACLU's Shapiro.

But the conservative wing did not always prevail in the criminal area.

In a case that could prove troublesome for prosecutors, the court threw out a homicide conviction of a New York man who already had been convicted for drunk driving. It also refused to let prosecutors use statements illegally obtained from defendants to cast doubt on testimony by defense witnesses.

The justices said overnight guests enjoy a Fourth Amendment right to privacy in other people's homes that protects them from warrantless searches. And in another child abuse case, the court made it harder for prosecutors to use out-of-court hearsay statements by the children that they have been molested.

Perhaps the overall story of the term is a court poised to shift decidedly to the right with the addition of one more conservative justice.

The court reached 5-to-4 decisions 38 times this term -- 10 of them triumphs for the liberal wing, 20 for the conservative wing, the rest non-ideological decisions. White joined the majority in nearly all rulings in which the liberal or conservative wing prevailed.

"The story of the term was Justice White," said former assistant attorney general Charles Cooper. "He's the Supreme Court."