WASHINGTON — Health care conflicts will kick off a Supreme Court term that is expected, in time, to turn toward the truly dramatic.
States and doctors have multibillion-dollar stakes in the California case that starts the new term Monday. They're weighing in, on competing sides. And just over the horizon is the lumbering giant: an all-but-certain Supreme Court review of the Obama administration's health care law — right in the middle of an election year.
"It might be a fantastic Supreme Court term," said Neal Katyal, formerly the Obama administration's acting solicitor general.
The term will be the second for the court's newest justice, Elena Kagan, and the seventh for Chief Justice John Roberts. Though three other justices are 75 or older, no retirements appear imminent.
For now, the court has agreed to hear about 50 cases that cover everything from jailhouse strip searches and GPS snooping to swear words and California's proposed Medicaid reimbursement cuts.
In early November, for instance, the court will weigh whether Washington, D.C., police who planted a GPS tracking device on a drug suspect's car without a valid warrant violated his constitutional rights. The trickiest question may turn on whether the police improperly infringed on private property when they affixed the device.
Later in November, the court will consider whether the Federal Communications Commission can fine television networks for "fleeting expletives." The case goes back to Fox TV shows in 2002 and 2003, when semi-celebrities blurted out what attorneys now discreetly call "the F-word" and "the S-word."
Court-watchers think that the broadcasters will prevail.
"The court has rarely seen a First Amendment (argument) it doesn't like," noted lawyer Kannon Shanmugam, who has argued 10 cases before the Supreme Court.
Potentially ahead, if the court agrees to hear them, are challenges to affirmative action at the University of Texas, Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants and, most anticipated of all, President Barack Obama's signature health care program.
The court's nine justices will add more cases for the next several months, until they reach their usual limit of about 75 for the term. At least four justices must agree to hear a case for it to be added to the docket. The challenge to the Obama administration's health care law almost certainly will meet this threshold, in part because appellate courts are badly split.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Florida, Alabama and Georgia, found the insurance mandate unconstitutional. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which comprises Kentucky and three other states, concluded otherwise.
The biggest pending challenge may be to the requirement that individuals be covered by insurance or pay a fine. Another tossup question is whether the entire law can survive if the high court, now dominated by Republican appointees, strikes down part of it.