With one month to go, high court yet to rule on many key disputes

Cases on school vouchers, death penalty and HMOs

May 27, 2002|By David G. Savage | David G. Savage,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Heading into the final month of its term, the Supreme Court has yet to decide 31 cases, more than a third of the year's total. And, as usual, they include many of the most significant disputes before the justices.

The Supreme Court typically hands down its opinions during the last week in June and then adjourns for the summer. Here are some of the major cases that are pending:

School vouchers: Can the state issue vouchers that parents can use to send their children to parochial schools, or does this violate the Constitution's ban on taxpayer aid for religion? A ruling upholding Ohio's voucher plan would give a big boost to the "school choice" movement nationwide.

The death penalty: Can a state impose the death penalty on a convicted murderer who is mentally retarded, or is that cruel and unusual punishment?

Drug testing: Can high schools force students who participate in extracurricular activities to submit to random drug tests, or is that an unreasonable search and a violation of an individual's privacy? A ruling in favor of an Oklahoma school district's drug-testing policy would likely encourage other districts to do the same.

HMOs: Can states give HMO patients a right to an independent medical review of their claims for treatment? Most states have adopted such laws recently, but the health insurance industry argues that these measures violate federal law that regulates employee benefits.

Judicial elections: Do elected judges and their challengers have a free-speech right to take stands on issues, or can states forbid judicial candidates to speak out on issues that might come before the courts?

Sidewalk solicitors: Can cities and towns require door-to-door solicitors to register and obtain a permit, or does this violate their free-speech rights? Jehovah's Witnesses are fighting a small Ohio village, but the ruling could set a national rule for solicitors.

Census sampling: Despite a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting most sampling, the Census Bureau says it "imputes" a number for residents of households that do not return census forms. This practice resulted in an increase of 1.2 million citizens in the census count, or 0.4 percent. But the adjusted numbers shifted a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives from Utah to North Carolina, and Utah's lawyers are urging the court to outlaw the use of these "imputed" numbers.

Disabled workers: Employers may not refuse to hire a qualified but disabled worker, unless doing so would pose "a direct threat to the health or safety of other individuals." Chevron denied Mario Echazabal's application for a job at an oil refinery after company officials learned that he had liver problems. They said workplace chemicals and solvents would pose a "direct threat" to his health; he sued, arguing that the choice was his, not an employer's.

Mass transit searches: Can police officers or federal agents walk down the aisles of buses and other public vehicles and ask to search passengers' bags for drugs, or would this amount to an unreasonable search banned by the Fourth Amendment? Bush administration lawyers say these searches are necessary to fight the war on drugs and the war on terror.

David G. Savage is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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