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Divided Supreme Court set to wrap up term

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court's conservative majority made it harder for people to band together to sue the nation's largest businesses in the two most far-reaching rulings of the term the justices are wrapping up on Monday.

The two cases putting new limits on class-action lawsuits were among more than a dozen in which the justices divided 5-4 along familiar ideological lines, with the winning side determined by the vote of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Women made up one-third of the nine-member court for the first time ever this year, but missing from the court's docket was a case that could be called historic.

Next year and 2013 could look very different, with potentially divisive and consequential cases on immigration, gay marriage and health care making their way to the high court.

Chief Justice John Roberts said the court would finish its business on Monday when the justices will announce decisions in four remaining cases, including two First Amendment disputes.

In one, video game makers are leading a challenge to a California law that bars the sale or rental of violent video games to children. The case was argued nearly eight months ago, when it appeared a majority of the court was inclined to strike down the law.

The other case involves a campaign finance law in Arizona that rewards candidates who accept public funds with additional cash when privately funded rivals and independent groups exceed certain spending thresholds.

Also Monday, the justices are expected to decide whether to hear several important cases next term. They include:

* Whether police need a search warrant before they place a global positioning device on a car to track a suspect's movements.

* A challenge to the constitutionality of the Federal Communications Commission regulation of indecency on television.

* Suits against defense contractors over claims of abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

* Yet another business-backed challenge to class-action suits in state courts.

Justice Antonin Scalia was the author of the majority opinion in both class-action cases, Wal-Mart v. Dukes and AT&T v. Concepcion. The Wal-Mart decision blocked a sex discrimination suit on behalf of up to 1.6 million female employees and made it harder to mount large-scale claims against big companies in federal court.

The AT&T decision endorsed the use of provisions that are common in consumer contracts for cellphones, credit cards and other goods and services in which the customer waives the right to sue. Scalia's opinion said those provisions were valid, even in the face of state laws that protect the availability of class actions.

The rulings in those cases provided new fodder for complaints that the Roberts court has a pro-business tilt.

A frequent critic, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans a hearing this coming week about recent decisions' effect on individuals' access to the courts and on corporate behavior.

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