The Supreme Court attracts the most attention when it does something new, or does something so old that it seems new. For example, the Court’s decision last May declaring that Congress had no authority to enact the Violence Against Women Act under the guise of regulating interstate commerce received plenty of media attention. And since 1995, the Court has begun tentatively to enforce the constitutional limitations on the powers granted to Congress, something it had ignored since 1937.

But some of the Supreme Court’s most important work is performed when it refuses to do something new, declining to create an “innovative” exception to constitutional rights. Thus, the most important Bill of Rights decision of the 1999-2000 term came when the Court refused to invent a loophole that would have nearly destroyed the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits unreasonable searches and seizures.

In Florida v. J.L., an anonymous telephone tipster had claimed that a young black male, wearing a plaid shirt and standing at a certain bus stop, was carrying a gun. Some police officers went to the bus stop and saw three young black males, one with a plaid shirt. They frisked him and found a gun.

Under current Fourth Amendment doctrine, the search was unconstitutional. The 15-year-old had not been doing anything illegal or suspicions, or anything which would make a police officer concerned about public safety. The tipster was anonymous, and had offered nothing beyond an accusation, so there was no way to evaluate his credibility or the basis of his knowledge.

Following current case law, the Florida court suppressed evidence of the gun, since the gun had been illegally seized. The Florida attorney general appealed the case, which eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court. There, the attorney general argued that there should be a “firearms exception” to the Fourth Amendment. Because guns are so dangerous, the attorney general reasoned, searches for them should not have to meet ordinary Fourth Amendment standards.

Writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg disagreed, noting how easy it would be to harass citizens if anonymous tips about guns could, by themselves, serve as the basis for a search.

In a 1968 case, Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court created a large Fourth Amendment loophole by allowing police officers to stop and search people who seemed to be acting in a suspicious manner. Although Terry was premised on the need for officer safety, in case the suspicious person were a criminal who might use a gun against the officer, the case became the foundation for dozens of new Fourth Amendment exceptions, usually in situations having little to do with police safety. Had the Florida attorney general prevailed in Florida v. J.L., the case would have established the foundation for many more exceptions to the Fourth Amendment.

Although J.L. involved a search of a pedestrian, there would have been immediate pressure to apply the “firearms exception” to searches of automobiles, businesses, and homes. All over the country, prosecutors would have argued that Fourth Amendment protection should also be suspended when officers suspect that people possess other dangerous things, such as knives, brass knuckles. or drugs.

Since ordinary Fourth Amendment restrictions would not apply, mere assertions (rather than probable cause or reasonable suspicion) would have become the basis for searches, leaving everyone in jeopardy of being searched at whim.

The Supreme Court’s swift and unanimous ruling may signal its unwillingness to let political hysteria over guns be used to weaken the Bill of Rights. If so, today’s Court is wiser than the Court of the 1920’s (when fear of communism was allowed to trump the First Amendment) or the 1980’s (when the “drug war” was allowed to degenerate into a war on the Constitution).

Not since World War I has there been a Democratic President so aggressively hostile to the Bill of Rights, so it was not surprising that Clinton’s solicitor general filed an amicus brief in favor of the “firearms exception.”

What was surprising, however, was the broad collection of amici who wrote in support of the Fourth Amendment. The American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers supplied amicus briefs, as they often do in Fourth Amendment cases. But so did the Rutherford Institute, which focuses mainly on freedom of religion. The National Rifle Association joined with the Independence Institute, in a brief I co-authored, to point out that the carrying of firearms is common and legal in most of the United States, and not inherently suspicious. Even the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has spent much of the past decade raising direct-mail revenue from credulous donors panicked about “militia terrorism,” contributed an amicus brief.

Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, has observed the growth of a coalition in which disparate groups come together to uphold the principle that government should leave people alone. Homeschoolers, gun owners, and hemp activists are realizing that protecting the lifestyles of people they don’t like is the best way to ensure protection for their own lifestyle. Florida v. J.L. was a great victory for the Bill of Rights. As groups such as J.L.‘s very diverse amici come to understand their common interest in protecting every single liberty set forth in the Bill of Rights, there will be more victories for the Constitution.