The Supreme Court has just handed down Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, ruling that the military tribunals established by the Bush administration violate both U.S. military law and the Geneva Conventions (which, as a treaty, has the same legal status as the Constitution.) Score one for the preservation of civil liberties! As Justice Stevens put it, "Even assuming that Hamden is a dangerous individual who would cause great harm or death to innocent civilians given the opportunity, the Executive nevertheless must comply with the prevailing rule of law in undertaking to try him and subject him to criminal punishment."
The case was decided by a vote of 5-3 (CJ Roberts didn't participate because he was part of the federal appeals court that had earlier rejected Hamdan's challenge.) The majority was comprised of Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kennedy. Scalia, Thomas, and Alito dissented.
The case is important because it sets a limit on executive authority, even during times of war. However, it also tells us much about this Supreme Court. First, it emphasizes the importance of Justice Kennedy. In short, as goes Kennedy, so goes the Court. From the perspective of lgbt rights, this isn't a bad thing. Justice Kennedy penned both Romer v. Evans (striking down Colorado's antigay initiative) and Lawrence v. Texas (striking down Texas's sodomy laws). At the same time, it's pretty clear that Kennedy is more conservative on most legal measures than O'Connor was and that the gravity of the Court has shifted to the right. Hamdan also suggests that concerns that Alito would be exteremely deferential to executive authority have some merit. He seems firmly ensconced in the Scalia-Thomas-Roberts wing of the Supreme Court. This deference to executive authority matters, because questions concerning its boundaries (warrentless wiretaps, anyone?) are likely to come before the Supreme Court quite frequently in upcoming years.
President's Bush's nominations to the Court have clearly pushed it to the right, leaving four reliably anti-individual rights votes, four reliably pro-individual rights votes, and Justice Kennedy, vacilating between the two camps. So long live Justice Stevens, who at 86 is the oldest member of the Court (both chronologically and in length of service) and by most measurements its most liberal member. May his health remain hale and his mind spry. Because we certainly need him to remain on this Court for the next two years.