Sunday, May 14, 2006

Supreme Court faces summer deadline to resolve potential blockbusters

Supreme Court faces summer deadline to resolve potential blockbusters

WASHINGTON (AP) — Before ending a historic term, the Supreme Court must resolve some potential blockbuster cases involving the president's wartime powers, capital punishment and political boundaries in Texas.

Much attention this term has focused on the two newest justices — John Roberts and Samuel Alito — and on signs of a possible shift to the right on the nine-member court.

With a late June deadline looming, the high court has yet to issue opinions in about 35 cases in which justices have heard arguments. At this point a year ago, the court had the same number of cases pending, a sign the justices' pace has changed little with the arrival of Roberts, who succeeded the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice.

Some headline-grabbing cases are over: a test of Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, a constitutional challenge to state abortion restrictions and model-reality television star Anna Nicole Smith's fight for a piece of her late husband's estate.

Still to be decided are cases involving President Bush's power to order military trials for suspected foreign terrorists held at the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an appeal that will decide when death row inmates should get a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA and other evidence.

In addition, the justices are delving into politics. At issue in one case is whether the court should throw out all or part of a Texas congressional map promoted by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. A free-speech case asks whether states can limit how much money is spent in political campaigns.

Much talk among court observers, however, concerns the justices' personalities.

"The real mark of this term is not the issues," said Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former court clerk. "Apart from what happens in the big ticket cases in June, we have a new chief justice for the first time in nearly 20 years and the justices changed seats for the first time in a decade."

Roberts, then 50, took the oath on the first day of the court's term in October, becoming the youngest chief justice in two centuries. Rehnquist died in September at age 80.

With a hard-hitting style of questioning, Roberts immediately changed the tone of the court's argument sessions. Rehnquist was no-nonsense and asked few questions. Roberts has been praised by fellow justices for his smooth operation of the court.

In late January, Samuel Alito won Senate confirmation to replace Sandra Day O'Connor after the failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers. Alito's style is reserved, the opposite of O'Connor, a moderate justice appointed by Ronald Reagan.

"Everybody is most interested in where they are going to be on cutting edge, hot button issues," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke Law School professor who often argues before justices. For now, he added, "There aren't many cases that are going to give us a read on the two new justices."

Suzanna Sherry, a law professor at Vanderbilt University, said: "I think we'll get a little bit of a sign. But it won't be a strong signal."

Roberts is sidelined in what is considered the biggest case of the term — the military trials at Guantanamo Bay. He had served on an appeals court panel that backed the Bush administration in the case last year and has withdrawn from the appeal.

Alito will not vote in cases that were argued before his arrival. Without O'Connor's vote, justices apparently deadlocked in three cases, requiring rare re-arguments. The abortion case was decided before his confirmation, although Alito will be a swing vote when a different abortion case is argued next fall.

One of the three deadlocked cases tests Kansas' death penalty law. A second capital punishment case will determine whether death row inmates can file last-minute civil rights lawsuits to challenge lethal injection as cruel and unusual punishment.

So far, Alito has written just one opinion. Alito backed a South Carolina death row inmate in a 9-0 ruling that found the man's constitutional rights were violated by a rule that barred him from introducing testimony blaming another man for the crime.

Roberts wrote the term's only religious freedom case, an unanimous ruling that said a small congregation may use hallucinogenic tea as part of a ritual intended to connect with God.

Generally, the most contentious cases of the year are decided in the final weeks, usually on 5-4 votes. Also historically, justices announce retirements at the end of their term.

There has been little speculation this year about more turnover, although three justices are at least 70. Justice John Paul Stevens is 86. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 73, and Justice Antonin Scalia is 70.

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