June 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Supreme Court Has Lake Cda On Mind Among Final, Thorny Cases Of Session Is Coeur D’Alene Tribe’s Claim Of Ownership Of Lake; Decision This Week

Linda Greenhouse New York Times
 

It has been clear for months, as case after major case piled up in the justices’ in-baskets, that the current Supreme Court term is potentially one of the most significant in years. But it became clear only this week that nearly every one of the most important cases would be decided in the term’s last few days.

With the goal of concluding its 1996-97 term on Thursday, the court plans to hand down decisions in all 16 of its remaining undecided cases - including one involving the Coeur d’Alene Tribe - in sessions today, Wednesday and Thursday.

Not only do these cases make up fully one-fifth of the term’s 80 decisions, but they also include perhaps 10 cases of potentially landmark status that will essentially define the term and mark the court’s place in the broader political system.

While some backlog at the end of the term is inevitable - the court, like any other human institution, tends to save the hardest work for last - in no recent term have so many cases of such magnitude remained until the very end.

Following is a list of the remaining cases:

Federalism: The question in Idaho vs. Coeur d’Alene Tribe is whether federal courts have jurisdiction to hear lawsuits against state officials that seek to establish property rights. This case was argued last October, making it the oldest case on the calendar and raising the question of whether the court is using it as a vehicle to erect a new shield of state immunity from lawsuits.

Tribal attorney Ray Givens was vigorously grilled during the hourlong hearing last fall. The tribe says President Ulysses S. Grant ceded the ownership of the lake to them in 1873. The state says it assumed control of all waterways when the state joined the union in 1890.

Since the 11th Amendment prohibits private parties from suing states in federal court, the tribe in 1991 instead sued the Idaho Land Board, which oversees management of Idaho’s lakes and streams. The suit was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In another regional case, the court will decide in Printz vs. United States whether the Brady gun control law, which requires a background check of prospective gun purchasers by local law-enforcement officials, violates state sovereignty. The plaintiffs are Sheriff Jay Printz of Ravalli County, Mont., and Sheriff Richard Mack, of Graham County, Ariz.

Assisted suicide: Two cases, Washington vs. Glucksberg and Vacco vs. Quill, a New York case, present the question of whether state laws prohibiting doctor-assisted suicide violate either the due process or equal protection guarantees of the Constitution.

Free speech: In its first ruling on free speech in cyberspace, the court will decide, in Reno vs. American Civil Liberties Union, the constitutionality of the Communications Decency Act, which makes it a crime to make indecent material available to minors on the Internet.

In a commercial speech case, Glickman vs. Wileman Bros., the question is the constitutionality of a federal agriculture marketing law that requires growers to contribute to industrywide advertising programs to which some object.

Separation of powers: If the court decides in Raines vs. Byrd that members of Congress have standing to challenge the Line Item Veto Act, the justices will then rule on whether the president’s new authority to cancel individual sections of appropriations bills he has signed into law violates the separation of powers.

The constitutionality of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is at issue in City of Boerne vs. Flores. In this 1993 law, Congress decreed that religion should have more protection against government interference than the court itself has found to be constitutionally required.

Criminal law: The court will decide in Kansas vs. Hendricks whether states can subject violent sex offenders, who are deemed likely to repeat their crimes but who are not mentally ill, to civil confinement in a mental hospital once they have finished serving their criminal sentences. Kansas modeled its law on Washington state’s, and a decision would affect both states.

In Lindh vs. Murphy, the court will decide the retroactivity of provisions of a 1996 federal law that placed significant new obstacles in the path of state prison inmates seeking to challenge their convictions in federal court through petitions for a writ of habeas corpus.

Religion: If the court overcomes a procedural obstacle to reaching a decision in the New York case of Agostini vs. Felton, the justices may use this case as a vehicle for overturning a 1985 decision that barred public school teachers from teaching remedial classes on parochial school premises.

Civil rights: The decision in Richardson vs. McKnight could help shape the course of the privatization of public functions. The question is whether guards who work for private companies that run prisons have the same shield against prisoner lawsuits as guards who work for public prison agencies.

The court’s remaining voting rights case, Lawyer vs. Department of Justice, challenges a majority-black state Senate district in Florida and raises the question of whether a federal district court’s use of mediation to work out a settlement of the case was within the court’s authority.

Liability: Two decisions will shape the way courts handle mass tort cases, in which suits are brought on behalf of large groups of people whose identities and eventual illnesses are not yet known. At issue in the case, Amchem Products vs. Windsor, is the validity of the settlement of a class-action suit against asbestos manufacturers that limited the rights of future claimants. Depending on how the court rules, the decision could bear on the validity of the tobacco settlement.

The question in Metro-North vs. Buckley, a New York case, is whether the emotional distress from knowledge of exposure to disease-causing substances can be a basis for damages even though no such disease has yet developed.

Insider trading: The question in United States vs. O’Hagan is the validity of the Securities and Exchange Commission’s far-reaching definition of insider trading, under which someone can be guilty of trading on inside information even if that person owes no legal duty to the company from which the trader has misappropriated the information.

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