Exotic Supreme Court Docket?

October 07, 1992

Could the 1992-1993 term of the Supreme Court, which began this week, be called its National Enquirer phase? It has a number of cases that offer good supermarket tabloid headline possibilities, but are less exotic than they sound and are probably of little consequence to most Americans.

There's the Animal Sacrifices Case. The Sexual Therapy Case. The Innocent Man To Be Executed Case. The Pornographic Cache Destroyed Case. Everything but an Elvis Case.

In the first, the court will be asked to decide if a religious group may be denied the right to sacrifice live animals in its rites. The group challenges a law forbidding that as an abridgment of the constitutional right to freely exercise religion.

The second case involves the question of whether a person convicted of sexual abuse can be offered therapy only if he confesses his guilt. The defendant asks the court to rule that such a state law violates his right against self-incrimination.

The third case deals with a convicted murderer's request for a new hearing, claiming new evidence exonerates him. A lower court ruled potential innocence is not grounds for a new hearing.

And the fourth case deals with the question of whether the loss of millions of dollars worth of pornography is excessive punishment for violating obscenity laws.

There is not an abortion case this term. At least not one that goes directly to the question the Supreme Court has wrestled with during so many recent terms -- can abortions be outlawed or severely restricted?

The court could add such a case to the term's docket later, but that is considered unlikely because the court ruled last term that government may regulate abortion but may not not place an "undue burden" on a woman's exercise of her right to have one. Further developments in this area await changes in the court's membership.

The question of the court's membership after this term has been as much on court watchers' minds as the 1992 docket. Several justices are rumored ready to retire. Speculation is especially intense about Justices Byron White and Harry Blackmun. Some court watchers speculate that both have wanted to step down for some time. Justice White, the only justice named by a Democratic president, is thought to want to be replaced by a Democrat. Justice Blackmun, the author of the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision, is known to want to be replaced by a pro-choice justice.

A President Bill Clinton would satisfy both men with his choices. But even if George Bush is re-elected, they may decide to retire next year anyway, rather than wait four more long years. Justice White, 75, has already been on the court for 30 years; Justice Blackmun turns 84 next month.

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