The emerging court

October 02, 2006

The U.S. Supreme Court starts another new term today, with all justices in place. The newest members, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who was confirmed in time to open the term last year, and Samuel A. Alito Jr., who joined in midterm, seem settled in and have lined up with conservative Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas pretty much as expected. Justices John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David H. Souter and Stephen G. Breyer tend to be on the other side, and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy has stepped into the swing vote role played so long by retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

But the court is not always predictable. Alignments can change, anticipated blockbuster cases can fizzle and seemingly small cases can become large precedents. As at the beginning of many terms, it's hard to know what cases and issues will still be the subject of controversy by next summer. Some potentially interesting cases:

School desegregation. Based on a 30-year-old court-ordered plan, enrollment of African-American students in Louisville, Ky., schools is to be maintained at a minimum of 15 percent and a maximum of 50 percent. A similar plan has been challenged by parents in Seattle. What will the court say about diversity and how far will school districts have to go to maintain it?

Abortion. Reacting to the court's 5-4 decision (with Justice O'Connor in the majority) to strike down a state ban on "partial birth" abortions in 2000, Congress passed a federal ban in 2003. A doctor who could be imprisoned under the federal law challenged the prohibition of a surgical procedure that could be medically necessary to protect the mother's health up to six months into the pregnancy. The court took the case on an appeal by the Bush administration. Will this court be more restrictive?

Global warming. A petition by environmental groups under the Clean Air Act for the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from cars has opened up some sharp divisions among states that view more or less federal regulation of these emissions as helpful or harmful to their economic well-being. What will be the court's view of EPA's authority?

Power plants. Did the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overstep its authority when it interpreted air pollution standards governing emissions from coal-fired power plants in a way that was much more favorable to the power plant industry? The case may turn on whether the 4th Circuit even had jurisdiction to make its ruling.

The shape of the Roberts court will emerge as these and other important cases are considered this term.

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