Roberts, Supreme Court convene for major cases

`Right to die,' abortion, death penalty issues on docket



WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opens its term this week with a new chief justice and facing a series of major cases on the "right to die," abortion, free speech and the death penalty.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will be sworn in this morning during a court ceremony and then take the center seat as the justices hear the first round of oral arguments.

His first case might not prove memorable to him or to the law. It concerns whether slaughterhouse workers are entitled to be paid for the time it takes for them to don protective clothing at the start of each work shift.

Wednesday, however, the court will hear the Bush administration's challenge to the nation's only "right to die" law, a case that might give an early clue as to what kind of conservative Roberts is.

Oregon voters twice have approved the Death with Dignity Act, a measure that permits dying people to obtain lethal medication from their doctor. Since 1998 when the law took effect, 208 people have used medication to end their lives. Most of them were dying of cancer.

But shortly after President Bush won the presidency, his attorney general, John Ashcroft, decreed that Oregon doctors who prescribe lethal medication are violating federal drug-control laws. He threatened them with a loss of their license to prescribe drugs.

State vs. federal

As a legal matter, the case, now known as Gonzales v. Oregon, pits the state's traditional power to regulate the practice of medicine against the federal government's authority to regulate drugs.

It also poses a test of different styles of conservatism. Libertarian and so-called "small government" conservatives probably would side with Oregon, because it allows dying people to decide whether to end their lives. Conservative advocates of federalism also have been inclined to defer to the states, not Washington, D.C., to make the law.

In late November, the court will revisit the abortion issue. A New Hampshire case does not ask the court to overrule Roe v. Wade and the right to abortion, but it might make it more difficult for doctors to challenge a state's regulation of abortion.

New Hampshire, like 34 other states, passed a law that requires doctors to notify a parent before performing an abortion on a minor. Unlike most such laws, however, this statute did not make an exception for medical emergencies that threaten the health of the young woman.

A federal judge and the U.S. court of appeals in Boston blocked the law from taking effect. The state's attorney general, Kelly Ayotte, and Bush administration lawyers are urging the court to put the law into effect as written. They say doctors whose patients need emergency abortions may go to a judge and ask for a waiver of the parental notice rule.

Abortion-rights advocates say doctors who face medical emergencies should go first to a hospital, not to a courthouse. The court will hear the case of Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood on Nov. 30.

Free speech cases

Two important free-speech cases will be heard this fall. One concerns the rights of public employees; the other whether colleges may restrict military recruiters on campus.

At one time, the Supreme Court said public employees did not have a free-speech right to challenge their employer.

But the court changed direction in 1968 when it ruled that a schoolteacher could not be fired for writing a letter to a newspaper editorial page complaining about how the school board was spending the taxpayers' money. The justices said public employees had a right to speak out on matters of public concern.

The law remains unclear, however, on whether whistle-blowers have a right to speak out with impunity regarding what they have seen or heard on the job.

On Oct. 12, the court will hear a case to clarify the law. Richard Ceballos was a deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County five years ago when he alleged that another prosecutor had lied about evidence in order to obtain a search warrant. He persisted in raising his complaint with his superiors, and alleges he was reprimanded and transferred to an outlying office because he had spoken out.

He sued several of his superiors, including then-District Attorney Gil Garcetti. At first, a federal judge dismissed his claim, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived it. Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote that the First Amendment should protect government whistle-blowers who disclose wrongdoing.

Bush administration lawyers have intervened in the case of Garcetti v. Ceballos to urge the court to restrict the free-speech rights of public employees. They argue that while these employees may speak out as citizens, they do not have a right to speak freely on matters involving "the performance of their job duties."

A ruling on this issue could affect the rights of millions of public employees, including schoolteachers, college professors and police officers as well as nurses, technicians and doctors at publicly funded hospitals.

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