WASHINGTON – A North Carolina traffic stop will ease Supreme Court justices into their new term today, but things will accelerate from there.
Over the next nine months, the court could decide whether same-sex marriage will be legal nationwide. Justices will clarify the rules governing violent speech and prison grooming standards. They will untangle whether a Florida fisherman destroyed evidence by throwing fish overboard.
And, one way or another, they will surprise people. They always do.
“However slow the term is starting, it could explode by the end of the year,” said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The court’s 2014 term, which starts today and concludes June 30, will be the 10th under the leadership of Chief Justice John Roberts. The 59-year-old Roberts has instigated past court shockers himself, as when he upheld in 2012 a key part of the Affordable Care Act.
The court has only filled about three-quarters of its expected docket for the 2014 term. The court typically hears and decides about 75 cases each term, selected from about 9,000 petitions.
The constitutional question that could define the 2014 term, concerning same-sex marriage, is one of several still lurking around the corner. Last Monday, the justices had up for initial consideration seven petitions concerning marriage restrictions in five states. The petitions will get a closer look during at least one other conference before the justices decide whether to schedule oral arguments.
“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” said David A. Strauss, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, “but most people think they will take up the issue.”
It could take several weeks, as justices must sort through multiple options, including whether to address one or two distinct issues: a state’s ban on same-sex marriages and a state’s refusal to recognize same-sex marriages conducted elsewhere.
Another high-stakes challenge to the Obama administration’s health care subsidies could also be added to the 2014 docket. Thousands of other petitions also will try to beat the odds, like one filed by the Sacramento-based Pacific Legal Foundation challenging a lower court’s upholding of protections for the endangered Delta smelt in California.
For now, the cases scheduled for hourlong oral arguments present a hodgepodge of constitutional and statutory questions.
“In the past several terms, the court has had quite a number of blockbuster decisions,” said Caroline Fredrickson, president of the liberal American Constitution Society. “It’s hard to know whether this will be another term like those.”
The inaugural case today, Heien v. North Carolina, started in April 2009 when a sheriff’s department sergeant in Surry County, about 90 miles north of Charlotte, North Carolina, stopped a car that had only one working brake light. The officer thought, mistakenly, that state law required two working brake lights.
The officer grew suspicious of the driver and the passenger, Nicholas Brady Heien. He searched the car and eventually discovered a bag filled with 2 ounces of cocaine. The question facing the court is whether a law enforcement officer’s mistaken understanding of the law renders a subsequent search illegal.
“Only by refusing to excuse such mistakes can officers be properly deterred from engaging in such overly ambitious readings of the traffic code, at the expense of individual liberty,” Stanford Law School professor Jeffrey Fisher, the attorney representing Heien before the high court, wrote in a brief.
Robert Montgomery, North Carolina’s senior deputy attorney general, countered that penalizing mistaken understandings of the law “would inject unwarranted uncertainty into the daily actions of law enforcement officials.”
In other cases, the court will:
• Consider whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the religious rights of Muslim inmate Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, by prohibiting him from growing a half-inch beard. Arkansas officials worry about weapons being hidden in beards, but other states and the federal government allow beards.
• Figure out whether Holmes Beach, Florida, fisherman John L. Yates violated a federal law banning the destruction of any “record, document or tangible object” in an effort to impede an investigation. Yates ordered crewmen to throw back into the Gulf of Mexico red grouper that an inspector thought were too small.
Many cases will unite the justices. For all the fuss about a bitterly divided court, 66 percent of all decisions last term were unanimous. Only 10 percent were decided by a 5-4 vote.
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