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New term, justice for nation's highest court

WASHINGTON — Justice David Souter never danced the salsa in public. Justice John Paul Stevens doesn't sing in karaoke bars. And Chief Justice John Roberts hasn't thrown out the first pitch at Yankee Stadium.

But that was yesterday's Supreme Court. The newest justice, Sonia Sotomayor, has done all three of those things — in the less than two months since she replaced Souter on the court.

While the Supreme Court is all about the law, personalities matter. As the court begins its new term Monday, the justices will be dealing not only with the cases in front of them but with a wild card: how Sotomayor and her effervescence may change things.

"It's like when you were little and a new kid joined the class," said Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University. "There was always a little air of excitement or anticipation because you didn't know how it would change the dynamic."

The earliest indications are that she is unlikely to affect the outcome or alter the terms of debate in two of the high-profile cases that probably will dominate the term: a challenge to limits on corporate spending in political campaigns and a lawsuit seeking to strike down local handgun bans in the Chicago area.

In both cases, conservative majorities that prevailed in earlier cases appear solid. Sotomayor probably will side with the court's liberals in dissent from decisions in favor of gun rights and loosening campaign finance restrictions, as the now-retired Souter did.

But other disputes loom and, to cite one area, Sotomayor will be watched closely to see whether her past as a prosecutor makes her more sympathetic to law enforcement in criminal cases. Unlike her colleagues, Sotomayor has experience as a trial judge.

The justices themselves say any change in the court matters.

"It's a new court. When I was trying jury cases, which is usually 12, if a juror had to be replaced . . . it's just a different dynamic. It was a different jury. And it's the same way here. This will be a very different court," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in an interview for C-SPAN's new documentary on the court.

Sotomayor is the third new justice on the court since 2005, when Roberts was confirmed as the first of President George W. Bush's two nominees. Justice Samuel Alito came on board early in 2006.

For the moment, Roberts and the other conservatives — Alito and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas — continue to appear ascendant, joined by Kennedy, a swing voter who sides more often than not with the conservatives.

Indications are that more change could come soon. Justice John Paul Stevens, who turns 90 in April, acknowledged last month that he has so far hired fewer law clerks than usual for next year, a move widely considered to be a signal that he is at least contemplating retiring.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, appears well after her surgery for pancreatic cancer and said she plans to serve into her early 80s. But the long-term prognosis for pancreatic cancer is poor.

The retirement of either would give President Barack Obama another nominee, although the ideological balance of the court probably would not change. For that to happen, one of the conservatives would have to leave during Obama's presidency. None of the current conservative justice has even hinted at retirement.

Cases before the court

A look at some major cases and pending appeals that the Supreme Court will consider in its new term:

Religion: Can the government erect a cross in a national park? The American Civil Liberties Union sued over the long-standing cross in California's Mojave National Forest and won a ruling that the display of a Christian symbol on public land violated the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion." (Salazar vs. Buono. To be heard on Oct. 7)

Animal cruelty: Can Congress make it a crime to sell videos of dogfights and other acts of animal cruelty? Last year, this law was struck down on free-speech grounds. (U.S. vs. Stevens. To be heard on Oct. 6.)

Mutual funds: Can shareholders sue to contest the high fees charged by investment advisers? In rejecting such a claim, a U.S. appeals court said that as long as the fees are disclosed, they are not subject to a legal challenge. (Jones vs. Harris Associates. To be heard Nov. 2)

Pro sports: Are the 32 teams in the National Football League shielded from antitrust claims because they operate as single business? A Chicago-area maker of sports apparel sued after it was shut out from selling caps with a team logo. (American Needle vs. NFL. To be heard in January.)

Gun rights: Can municipal gun-control ordinances be challenged under the Second Amendment and its "right to keep and bear arms?" In the past, the court said the Second Amendment applied only to the federal government. (Appeal pending in NRA vs. Chicago and McDonald vs. Chicago)

Prisoner photos: Does the Freedom of Information Act require the U.S. military to release more photos of prisoners being abused in Iraq and Afghanistan? Judges ordered the release of photos, but President Barack Obama appealed, arguing that the adverse publicity could endanger U.S. troops. (Appeal pending in U.S. Department of Defense vs. ACLU)

New term, justice for nation's highest court 10/03/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 3, 2009 2:57pm]
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