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All eyes on Justice Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court returns

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court returns from its holiday break with unfinished business, some of its toughest cases ahead and a looming decision that could rock the national political landscape in this year of midterm congressional elections.

The justices met privately Friday to pick through the stack of review requests that accumulated since their last public session Dec. 14. They will begin a new round of oral arguments today in which Justice Sonia Sotomayor will likely play a prominent role.

But it is an old case that is consuming the political world: a pending decision on whether restrictions on corporate and labor union spending on political campaigns violate the First Amendment. It arose from a less significant question about whether a conservative group's financing of and distribution plans for a documentary — Hillary: The Movie, a scathing account of Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential pursuit — violated the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

The court heard oral arguments on the original question in March 2009, but adjourned in June without a decision. Instead, the justices said they would consider the larger question of whether it is constitutional to ban corporations and labor unions from drawing funds from their general treasuries to support or oppose candidates.

Congress for decades has outlawed such expenditures, and 22 states have similar bans. Both sides agree that a ruling saying such restrictions are unconstitutional would mean a sea change.

At the September arguments in Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, the more conservative justices indicated skepticism about the constitutionality of the bans on corporate spending. But because of the circumspect court's private deliberations, it is hard to speculate about the cause for delay.

One possibility is that a broad decision declaring the restrictions unconstitutional has drawn lengthy dissents from those in the minority, who have no incentive for rushing the ruling. But equally possible is a failure to find a majority for such clear guidance and a multitude of competing opinions in which a narrow majority agrees only on the outcome in this specific case.

The ruling could come by Tuesday.

The new year brings a few new cases to a mostly full docket — the court traditionally stops hearing arguments in April. It has already taken at least one case that will command the nation's attention: whether the Second Amendment right to personal ownership of firearms that rendered unconstitutional the handgun ban in the federal enclave of Washington also applies to state and city attempts to restrict gun ownership.

Three cases this week may focus attention on the court's newest member.

Praised by Obama as the "judge who saved baseball" because of her role in a case involving the major-league baseball strike, Sotomayor and the rest of the court will turn to other sports in deciding an antitrust case, American Needle vs. NFL.

In an international custody case, Abbott vs. Abbott, the court will consider the protections in a treaty meant to discourage child abduction. Sotomayor dealt with the treaty as an appellate judge.

In a third, she could play a key role in deciding how to implement a decision the court reached seven months ago — or whether it should be reversed. Sotomayor's influence is outsized in Briscoe vs. Virginia because David Souter, the justice she replaced, was in the majority of the 5 to 4 ruling that defendants have the right to question crime lab analysts about the reports they produce.

All eyes on Justice Sonia Sotomayor as Supreme Court returns 01/10/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 10, 2010 10:54pm]
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