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Final Cases Will Tell High Court's Leanings

THE Supreme Court has saved the hardest for last. Tomorrow is expected to be the final day for rulings this term, and it promises to be a judicial bonanza. The court will rule on five of this term's prickliest cases, clarifying race, religion, and environment issues.

Also becoming more evident: how far to the right the court is moving and how united is the conservative cluster of Justices William Rehnquist, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Sandra Day O'Connor, and Anthony Kennedy.

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"With the exception of term limits, all 13 of the split [5 to 4] decisions have gone in a conservative direction," says David O'Brien, who puts out a Supreme Court update in Charlottesville, Va. "This week will really test the court."

On race, the court decides whether to limit or abolish racially drawn election districts in Georgia and Louisiana. The decision follows two closely contested (5 to 4) conservative rulings this term to curb affirmative action and school desegregation.

On religion, the court may alter the status of faith in public life. Conservative Christians want the "wall" separating church and state lowered; the court could do so in two different cases.

And, in the first major environmental ruling since 1978, the court may restrict the federal government's ability to protect endangered species habitats, if the habitat is on private land.

Here is a synopsis of the three main cases, and what they might mean:

* Redistricting. White voters in two racially gerrymandered voting districts feel disenfranchised. The court will clarify the landmark 1993 Shaw v. Reno case, which limits race as a factor in creating districts. Some 30 black House members could find their districts redrawn if the court takes a hard line.

* Church and state. Rosenberger v. University of Virginia is perhaps the most difficult case of the term. A Christian fundamentalist magazine at UVA was denied student-activity monies while Islamic and Jewish groups received them. The court must determine how to balance free speech with separation of church and state. Justice O'Connor has hinted in the past that current "neutrality" toward religion has been used as a hostile tool against it. Church-state separation groups worry that a ruling for the magazine may lead to federal funding of private church-based schools.

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* Endangered species. In Babbitt v. Sweet Home, the court may step back from its previous landmark decision, the famous "snail-darter" ruling, that gave the federal government the right to protect endangered species. Since 1978, the Department of Interior has interpreted that ruling to mean species protection extends to private land. An Oregon-based coalition says the ruling doesn't cover private land. The case pits Interior against powerful logging, farm, and ranching interests.

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