With a host of controversial issues before it, the U.S. Supreme Court returns to work today to confront cases that touch on virtually every aspect of human life - and death.
From abortion protests and bans on assisted suicide to gun control and whether English should be an official language, many of the issues already have divided the public, just as they will the nine justices.
“I think it’s going to be a very exciting term. The court has taken cases in almost every area of controversy: sex, drugs, life and death,” said David Cole, a professor at Georgetown Law Center. “The only thing missing is rock ‘n’ roll.”
Not as if the court needs that to spice up its docket. The most important cases present difficult and emotional questions that likely will provide all the action the court needs, especially since more dicey challenges are on the way.
Legal observers expect the court to pick up a number of timely cases, including a challenge to the federal law banning indecency on the Internet.
Right to die
The right-to-die cases ask whether states can ban doctor-assisted suicide. More than 40 states consider assisted suicide a crime, but two lower courts have said bans in the states of Washington and New York violate the Constitution.
The two federal appeals courts gave different reasons for striking down the laws, both of which present novel constitutional theories that may meet much resistance from the justices. The court appears least likely to accept the ruling in the case from Washington, where the appeals court extended the controversial Roe vs. Wade abortion decision to hold that a person has a privacy right to assisted suicide.
In the case from New York, the appeals court said if a dying patient has a right to refuse medical treatment, he also should have a right to speed up his death by taking drugs. Six years ago, the Supreme Court recognized a terminally ill person’s right to refuse medical treatment, but the court was deeply divided.
“The court will be very reluctant to utilize abortion-related precedent in another context,” said Douglas Kmiec, a professor at the University of Notre Dame Law School. “It will merely emphasize that this is a case where the judiciary is upsetting the balance that has been drawn in state legislative assemblies.”
For more than two decades, critics of Roe vs. Wade have said the court usurped the role of the state legislatures when it overturned state bans on abortion.
The Brady bill
The court will have several opportunities this term to consider the role of the states, including a case that challenges the federal Brady bill which requires local police to conduct background checks on gun buyers.
Four years ago, the justices said Congress could not “commandeer” state and local employees and oblige them to carry out federal tasks. Citing that ruling, a U.S. appeals court in Texas struck down part of the federal handgun-registration law which requires local sheriffs to conduct background searches on those who ask for a gun permit.
The court will hear the administration’s appeal in the case of Printz vs. United States.
Historically, the court has given Congress great latitude, but it shook things up two terms ago when it said Congress went too far in passing a law banning guns near schools. Since that ruling, which said the matter should have been left to the states, legal observers have been anxious to see the court expound on the relationship between the states and the federal government.
“If they do strike the Brady bill, that may further indicate the court’s willingness to serve as some kind of check on Congress and the executive,” said Scott Bullock of the libertarian Institute for Justice.
Clinton vs. Jones
If Clinton is re-elected, the court is sure to rule on whether he must answer to a civil suit during his second term. Paula Corbin Jones, a former Arkansas state employee, says the then-governor made sexual advances in a Little Rock, Ark., hotel room, and she has sued him for damages.
The court will not consider what may or may not have happened between Clinton and Jones. Instead, the court will rule on a much narrower legal question: Should private lawsuits against presidents be deferred until after they leave office? The court also will hear a case challenging a Tennessee judge’s conviction for sexually assaulting five women in his chambers. The politically connected judge wasn’t prosecuted by local officials, so the federal government stepped in and said he had violated an old civil rights statute. A federal appeals court rejected the notion that that law applied, ruling that the Constitution doesn’t give people the right to be free from sexual assaults.
Meanwhile, state prosecutors are appealing a ruling that threatens new laws that seek to confine those who are deemed “sexual predators.” California, Washington and several other states have enacted laws that allow officials to indefinitely confine sex criminals who are deemed dangerous after they have served their prison terms.
The Kansas Supreme Court ruled this indefinite extra prison term is unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear an appeal in Kansas vs. Hendricks.
Rights of motorists
While cases involving “sexual predators” still are rare, police deal every day with drivers who speed or change lanes too often.
Motorists stopped by the police for traffic violations can refuse, at least in theory, to permit an officer to search their cars. But police conduct such searches routinely.
The Ohio Supreme Court recently called these searches “fishing expeditions” and ruled them unconstitutional unless officers clearly notify motorists that they are free to leave after answering for the traffic violation.
Meanwhile, Maryland state courts said police violated the Fourth Amendment’s ban on “unreasonable searches” when they routinely demanded that passengers, as well as the driver, get out of the car to be searched.
On Tuesday, the justices will hear the state’s appeal in the first case, known as Ohio vs. Robinette. Maryland prosecutors will argue their appeal in December in the case of Maryland vs. Wilson.
This term begins with a First Amendment test that will affect what stations appear on Americans’ TV sets.
More than 60 percent of households receive TV signals via cable. That means local broadcast stations could lose most of their viewers if a cable operator dropped them.
Four years ago, Congress said cable operators, nearly all of which have a local monopoly, must carry the signals of the over-the-air stations in their areas. Ever since, the cable industry has challenged the law as a violation of the rights to free speech and a free press.
Their critics say a cable TV operator is more like a local telephone system, a common carrier that can be required to carry the conversations of all callers.
Two years ago, the court split the difference and said cable TV could be regulated as long as the government does not dictate the content of its programs.
After a further hearing in a lower court, the case of Turner Broadcasting vs. the Federal Communications Commission is back and being argued this morning.
Next after cable TV comes the free-speech status of the Internet, the worldwide computer network that combines aspects of telephones, newspapers and broadcast transmissions.
Earlier this year, Congress made it a crime to make an “indecent” or “patently offensive” transmission over the computer network. Both the computer industry and civil libertarians protested, and a three-judge court in Philadelphia struck down the rule as a free-speech violation.
The Justice Department recently appealed the case, known as Reno vs. the American Civil Liberties Union, and the high court is almost sure to rule on the matter during this term.
Other important First Amendment cases include one involving an Arizona law that requires English to be the “language of the ballot, the public schools and all government functions and actions.”
Buffer zones for abortion clinics
The court also will revisit a previous decision that upheld buffer zones around abortion clinics. The current case challenges an injunction that established 15-foot buffer zones around a clinic and required abortion protesters to go back farther if a patient insisted.