The court's new era

September 29, 2005

Despite some sniping and griping by Democrats, Judge John G. Roberts Jr. is certain to be confirmed today as chief justice of the United States. But he won't have much time to savor the moment as he'll have to dive right into the nearly 50 cases that are facing the court as it begins the 2005-2006 term on Monday.

Even without some of the surefire attention-getters in the lineup of cases - including campaign finance reform, capital punishment, abortion rights, assisted suicide, military recruiters on campus, and police searches - this would be an unusual court session. Not only will Judge Roberts take over as the 17th chief justice, but President Bush is expected to announce momentarily his choice to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. We hope that Mr. Bush will select someone in the same moderate mold as Justice O'Connor. But whoever he picks, the coming term marks a new era in the court's history.

The leadership and legal skills of soon-to-be Chief Justice Roberts will be on display as he presides over the court's consideration of several contentious issues. Among the first cases scheduled for oral argument next week is a challenge by the Justice Department to Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law. Later, the court will hear a challenge involving the federal law that can withhold federal funds from campuses that refuse to allow military recruiters because of the military's treatment of gays. The justices will also consider the validity of a New Hampshire parental notification law regarding abortion.

Important issues of evidence and aggravating and mitigating circumstances will be addressed in death penalty cases from California, Kansas and Oregon. And the murder of an Annapolis businessman presents the question of how strictly police officers must honor the right of a jailed suspect to remain silent after he has asked to see a lawyer.

More potential blockbuster cases were added this week when the justices agreed to consider whether stringent limits on campaign spending and contributions in Vermont are constitutional and whether ads by a right-to-life organization qualify as so-called grass-roots lobbying rather than corporate-funded ads that could be banned in the waning weeks of an election campaign under the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

In the business arena, the court is expected to determine whether Ohio is properly using tax incentives to lure companies such as DaimlerChrysler; whether Merrill Lynch should face class action lawsuits in state courts by investors who claim they were misled by analysts; and whether racial discrimination was involved in a contract dispute between an African-American businessman and Domino's Pizza.

Many of these cases involve issues that are stark reminders of Justice O'Connor's pivotal role as the swing vote in some of the court's most closely divided decisions. In choosing her successor, President Bush should pick someone who would follow in her footsteps.

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