WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court plunged into its new term Monday with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities. The next nine months hold the prospect for major rulings on affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.
Meeting on the first Monday in October, as required by law, the justices entered the crowded marble courtroom for the first time since their momentous decision in late June that upheld President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.
The decisive vote in favor of the Affordable Care Act, Chief Justice John Roberts was smiling as he led the justices into the courtroom just after 10 a.m.
Roberts formally opened the term, and the court turned quickly to its first argument, which could have far-reaching implications.
The dispute involves a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Petroleum, or Shell Oil, over claims that the company was complicit in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Human rights groups are warily watching the case because it would be a major setback if the court were to rule that foreign victims could not use American courts, under a 1789 law, to seek accountability and money damages for what they have been through.
A decision is expected by spring.
The first blockbuster case on the court’s calendar is Oct. 10, when the justices will hear arguments in a fight over the University of Texas’ affirmative action program. Texas uses multiple factors, including community service, work experience, extracurricular activities, awards and race, to help fill 20 to 25 percent of the spots in its freshman classes. The outcome could further limit or even end the use of racial preferences in college admissions.
The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.
Several federal courts have agreed that the provision of the law is unconstitutional, a situation that practically ensures the high court will step in.
A separate appeal asks the justices to sustain California’s Proposition 8, the amendment to the state constitution that outlawed gay marriage in the nation’s largest state. Federal courts in California have struck down the amendment.
The justices might not consider whether to hear the gay marriage issue until November.
Another hot topic with appeals pending before the high court, and more soon to follow, is the future of a cornerstone law of the civil rights movement.
In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly approved, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation extending for 25 more years a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act. It requires states and local governments with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination, mainly in the South, to get advance approval either from the Justice Department or the federal court in Washington before making any changes that affect elections.
Cases from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas could prompt the court to deal head-on with the issue of advance approval. The South Carolina and Texas cases involve voter identification laws; a similar Indiana law was previously upheld by the court.
It is unclear when the justices will decide whether to hear arguments in those cases.