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Back in session: it's the first full year for the Supreme Court's new team, and there are some tough issues on the docket.

The Supreme Court is made up of just nine people with lifetime appointments, so changing even one can make a big difference, and for a long time. Last term, two new Justices joined the Court, including Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The new term, which began last month, could give a clearer picture of the direction of the Roberts Court.

"I think this term is when the new Court is really going to define itself," says Jack Beermann, a law professor at Boston University.

Roberts assumed the leadership of the country's highest court in October 2005. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. took his seat four months later, replacing Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the first woman on the Court.

Appointed by President Reagan in 1981, O'Connor was often the "swing vote" in cases decided by 5-to-4 votes. With O'Connor gone, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy appears to be emerging as the new swing vote.

There's also the possibility of further changes in the line-up: With four Justices over 70--including 86-year-old Justice John Paul Stevens, who has been on the Court for 31 years--President Bush may have the opportunity to make additional appointments in his last two years in the White House.

One of the most important decisions to come out of the last term was Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, which invalidated the system of military commissions Bush had set up for trying terrorism suspects held at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba. The Court said the commissions needed authorization from Congress, and that they violated the provision in the Geneva Conventions requiring humane treatment of prisoners, which the Court said does apply to terrorism suspects.

The decision was seen as a rejection of the Bush administration's broad interpretation of presidential powers. It prompted Congress to pass legislation in September spelling out procedures (which are also likely to be challenged in court) for how terrorism suspects will be tried.

Here are some important cases to watch this year:

* Racial Quotas in Schools. The Court will consider whether public-school systems can take race into account in assigning students to schools. It will hear challenges to policies in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle that use race as a factor in deciding which schools students attend as a way to maintain racial balance. The Bush administration is arguing that such race-based assignment plans are unconstitutional.

Three years ago, in a 5-to-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which involved admissions at the University of Michigan law school, the Court upheld the consideration of race in university admissions.

The decisions in the Louisville and Seattle cases will provide the first clear indication of the new Court's thinking on questions of race and public policy. Chief Justice Roberts gave a hint of his position last year when he wrote, in an opinion on another case, "It is a sordid business, this divvying us up by race."

* Punitive Damages. In a case against cigarette maker Philip Morris, an Oregon jury awarded the family of a smoker who died from lung cancer $79.5 million in punitive damages. The question before the Court is whether there should be limits on the punitive damages that juries award.

* Fair Trials. Last month, the Court heard arguments in a California case in which a defendant charged with murder says he was denied a fair trial because the victim's family attended the trial wearing buttons showing the victim's face. The Court will consider whether the buttons unfairly prejudiced the jury.

* Abortion. This month, the Court will hear the Bush administration's defense of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which barred a particular surgical procedure used to perform late-term abortions. The Court will have to decide whether the federal ban is constitutional

In a similar case six years ago. the Court voted 5 to 4 that the law had to include exceptions to allow the procedure when it was medically necessary fur the woman's health. The 2003 law the Court is now considering includes no such provision.

* Air-Pollution Regulation. Sixteen states are suing the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate motor-vehicle emissions that they say contribute to global warming. The administration says that Congress did nor give the federal government the authority to regulate those emissions in the Clean Air Act.

However the Court decides these and other cases, it will be a lot easier this year to follow the proceedings. For the first time, the Court is posting transcripts on the day cases are argued at www.supremecourtus.gov. While the Court continues to resist television coverage of its sessions, the transcript change is a step toward public access that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.

LESSON PLAN 1

BACKGROUND

With two recent appointments by President Bush, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., and Associate Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the Supreme Court will bear close watching this term. And since the new Justices are relatively young, they may have the opportunity to help shape the Court for many years to come.

CRITICAL THINKING

* Tell students that in an average year the Supreme Court receives more than 1,800 appeals, but agrees to hear only about 80, or around 4 percent, of those cases.

* The Justices' reason for accepting some cases and not others usually lies in their belief that a particular law needs to be clarified or changed. Some examples:

* Punitive Damages: Should there be limits on these kinds of damages, meant to punish wrongdoing? (Some would argue that very high damages could put companies out of business; others, that high damages act as a deterrent.)

* Air Pollution: Who has the responsibility for protecting the environment from automotive emissions? Ask students whether they think this is a job for the federal or state governments.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

* Are students surprised to learn that a Justice's political views could influence his or her take on a case? Would it be possible to find Justices who are politically neutral?

* What are the pros and cons of lifetime appointments for Supreme Court Justices?

FAST FACT

[right arrow] In a ruling that pleased American farmers, the Supreme Court ruled in an 1893 case (Nix v. Hedden) that tomatoes were vegetables. Tomatoes had been classified as fruit and were allowed to be imported without a tariff. So the ruling made foreign tomatoes more expensive and domestic tomatoes cheaper.

WEB WATCH

www.supremecourthistory .org/02_history/02.html

The Supreme Court Historical Society provides a history of the Court, with notable decisions from 1789 to 2005. The site also includes brief biographies of the current Supreme Court Justices.

QUIZ 1

1. President Bush might influence the Supreme Court over the next two years

a by pressuring the Court to raise taxes.

b if he has the opportunity to appoint new Justices to the Court.

c by increasing the size of the Court.

d by requiring the Court to hear more cases.

2. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy appears to be emerging as the Court's new

a inconsistent vote.

b unknown vote.

c random vote.

d swing vote.

3. The air-pollution case will, decide whether

a air pollution is a serious health hazard.

b foreign-based pollution violates U.S. law.

c states can enforce air-pollution laws.

d the Environmental Protection Agency should be regulating motor-vehicle emissions.

4. In one of its most-important decisions (Hamdan v. Rumsfeld), heard last term, the Supreme Court ruled that

a suspected terrorists may not enter the U.S.

b the U.S. can prohibit suspected terrorists from flying on U.S. air carriers.

c Congress had not authorized military commissions to try suspected terrorists at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

d antiterrorism laws may not overrule citizens' First Amendment rights.

5. In the Philip Morris tobacco case, the question before the Supreme Court is whether

a there should be limits on punitive damages that juries may award.

b tobacco companies should be banned from advertising their products.

c private individuals have the right to sue tobacco companies.

d tobacco use has been proved to be a serious health hazard.

1. [b] if he has the opportunity to appoint new Justices to the Court.

2. [d] swing vote.

3. [d] the Environmental Protection Agency should be regulating motor-vehicle emissions.

4. [c] Congress had not authorized military commissions to try suspected terrorists at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

5. [a] there should be limits on punitive damages that juries may award.

IN-DEPTH QUESTIONS

1. The Constitution says the President, "with the Advice and Consent of the Senate," shall appoint Supreme Court Justices. Why do you think the Framers instituted this limitation on a President's power?

2. Only on rare occasions does the Supreme Court overturn rulings of earlier Supreme Courts. What kind of circumstance do you think might motivate the Court to overturn an earlier ruling?

Linda Greenhouse covers the Supreme Court for The New York Times, additional reporting by Patricia Smith.
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Title Annotation:NATIONAL
Author:Greenhouse, Linda
Publication:New York Times Upfront
Date:Nov 13, 2006
Words:1482
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