The latest U.S. Supreme Court term was a little like Oscar season: The last-minute release of the Affordable Care Act decision stole the spotlight from some earlier attractions.

A group of Supreme Court experts put the term in perspective on July 17 during a panel discussion at the University of California, Irvine School of Law. Beside the opinion upholding health care reform, key decisions during the 2011-2012 term came in the areas of free speech, criminal procedure and immigration, participants noted.

The biggest sleeper case was Knox v. Service Employees International Union, according to UCI Law dean Erwin Chemerinsky. In Knox, the court addressed the use of fees paid by workers to finance labor union political activities. In a 7-2 decision, the court held that non-union workers who have to pay collective bargaining fees must be allowed to opt in, instead of opting out, if they want some of the money to be used for political purposes, like contributing to campaigns.

The decision sounds insignificant, but it’s not, Chemerinsky said. “This is a major change in the law.” It means “a tremendous lessening of political influence of public employees.”

Joining Chemerinksy on the July 17 panel were Wall Street Journal Supreme Court correspondent Jess Bravin; The National Law Journal chief Washington correspondent Marcia Coyle; UCI Law professor Jennifer Chacon; and Pepperdine University School of Law professor Robert Pushaw. UCI Law professor Rick Hasen moderated.

Despite leaks to the media of discord on a divided bench this year, there were important instances of unanimity, Bravin said. He pointed to Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, in which all of the justices agreed that federal discrimination laws do not apply to religious organizations’ selection of their ministers. The justices also reached consensus in FCC v. Fox, concluding that the Federal Communications Commission’s standards regarding fleeting expletives and nudity on television were unconstitutionally vague.

Those two cases, and the March unanimous decision in Sackett v. EPA that a couple could challenge an environmental decision in court, contrasted with rulings that divided the Court, which “at the end of the term was acting more like a political institution,” Bravin said.

But having a highly divided bench may not be so bad, Pushaw offered. “Maybe it’s good that the court is so polarized,” he said. “It keeps either side from going off the deep end.”

The 2011-12 term gave Justice Elena Kagan, appointed in 2009, the opportunity to write her most important decision to date, Coyle said. In her 5-4 majority opinion in Miller v. Alabama, Kagan wrote that a state law imposing mandatory life in prison without parole for juveniles who commit murder violated the Eighth Amendment’s bar against cruel and unusual punishment.

“She decided that youth matters,” Coyle said. Coyle noted that Kagan relied on recent Supreme Court rulings that banned the death sentence for juveniles and life in prison without parole for juveniles who commit non-homicide crimes.

Another high-profile case was Arizona v. U.S., in which the Court struck down key provisions of a state law seeking to deter illegal immigration. The 5-3 ruling in upheld the federal government’s primacy in setting immigration policy. At the same time, it let stand a controversial provision requiring police to check the immigration status of people they detain and suspect to be in the country illegally.

The ruling opens the floodgates to litigation, Chacon said, much of which could focus on whether racial profiling has occurred.

As for next term, Court-watchers can expect decisions pertaining to affirmative action and voters rights, among other big-ticket issues. “The next term promises to be a blockbuster, said Hasen, the moderator.

Staff reporter Leigh Jones can be contacted at ljones@alm.com. Full disclosure: She is married to the assistant dean for communications and public affairs at UCI Law.