Another First Monday in October

October 03, 1994

The Supreme Court opens its 1994-95 term Monday, and for the fourth October in the 1990s, it will have a new member. The result of this turnover and what it holds for this term and future ones are not yet clear. When four of the nine justices have tenure of only four, three, one and no years -- having replaced justices who had been on the high court for 34, 30, 24 and 24 years -- obviously it is a more difficult court to categorize and predict.

Some justices surprise observers, including even the presidents who picked them. Two of the newest justices have been surprises so far, though in different ways. George Bush's two nominees were Clarence Thomas and David Souter. Both had reputations as conservatives. Justice Thomas has turned out to be even farther to the right than expected. Justice Souter has demonstrated an unexpected willingness to join the court's moderates and liberals to keep the court on a middle-of-the-road course -- this, despite Chief Justice William Rehnquist's efforts for nearly a decade to "correct" that course toward the right. Justice Souter's intellectual strengths have grown each term, to the point that some students of the court see him emerging as the leader of this centrist bloc.

The 1994-1995 term has some of the usual issues to deal with and a couple of rarities. Among the former are, to no one's surprise, race relations, along with various law enforcement procedures and free speech. Among the more unusual issues justices will consider are term limits for members of Congress, beer labeling and ambulance chasing.

The term limits case should be among the most newsworthy, the most noticed. Sixteen states have imposed terms limits, and term limits are an issue in many other states this year. The Supreme Court has taken a case from Arkansas where judges ruled term limits unconstitutional.

As for free speech, an Ohio woman was fined for passing out unsigned leaflets. Is that an infringement of the First Amendment? A similar question comes before the court in a case involving Amtrak's banning of political posters in New York City's Pennsylvania Station.

In the field of race relations, the court has agreed to hear cases dealing with affirmative action and school desegregation, and it may also get into the constitutionality of the majority-minority congressional districts required by laws in recent years.

There is a federal law against beer labels indicating alcoholic content. That has been challenged. So has a Florida Bar Association rule forbidding lawyers to solicit business from victims immediately after an accident or disaster.

A major abortion case like those of recent years may or may not come before the court this time, and the same is true of public school prayer. Two issues that have been front page news probably won't be settled by the court this term, but could be argued before it: gays in the military and women at state-supported military schools.

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