Election year Supreme Court

October 15, 1995

THE SUPREME COURT that began a new term this month was thought by most observers to be very conservative when it concluded its 1994-1995 term with a record of having weakened school desegregation, affirmative action and race-based voting rights. This term it may go even further in blocking black-majority and Hispanic-majority election districts and also to restrict the rights of gays for certain and women.

Can states write into their constitutions a denial of civil rights granted to gays by legislation and ordinances? Colorado voters did that to negate local civil rights laws. While gays have the LTC most direct interest in what the court says about this, the ruling will also affect states' rights issues in general. This court seemed last term to be interested in giving states much greater power to do as they wish -- a point of view shared with the new Congress.

But when the gay rights case was argued before the justices this past week, their questioning from the bench suggested strong skepticism, if not downright hostility, to the idea that a state can single out a group and deny it rights other groups enjoy.

Can states maintain "separate but equal" educational facilities for men and women, as Virginia wants to do at Virginia Military Institute and Mary Baldwin College? The court announced two weeks ago that it will consider this case. (But it announced this past week that it will not consider a similar Citadel case, since the woman seeking admission withdrew.)

The court will also likely rule on a free speech issue or two -- state regulation of liquor advertising and video programs via telephone. It may rule on the federal sentencing guidelines (in the case of one of the police officers who beat Rodney King). And it may rule on limits on punitive damage awards.

Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy have stuck together with the court's conservative bloc of three in recent terms. Will the two keep the court on its rightward voyage, as they did last year? If they do, and given that 1996 is a presidential election year, you can be sure the court will be a heated campaign issue.

In fact, it already is grist for the politicians. Vice President Al Gore said recently, "I shudder to think what risks our country would face if [current Republican leaders] ever came in control of not only the Congress but also the White House and with the White House then the control of the next three appointments to )) the Supreme Court."

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