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Supreme Court opens new term with range of cases

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court opens its new term today with a fall lineup of cases that includes how to deal with violent threats on the Internet, the role of religious liberty in prisons and whether working women who are pregnant have a right to lighter duties on the job.

Rather than split the court along sharp conservative versus liberal lines, these initial cases will require the justices to clarify the law where it is murky. In one colorful case from Florida involving a boat captain accused of obstructing an investigation by dumping his catch into the ocean, the justices will debate whether fish can be treated as the legal equivalent of shredded documents.

The major ideological conflicts are waiting just off stage, however. Later in the term the court is likely to take up a same-sex marriage case and decide whether states must give gay couples an equal right to marry.

The partisan divide over voting rules has also reached the Supreme Court in emergency appeals from Wisconsin and North Carolina. The justices will decide in the next week or two whether these Republican-led states may enforce new rules in this year's election.

Wisconsin wants to require its registered voters to show current, government-issued photo identification cards, even though critics warn it might bar thousands from casting ballots. The law was cleared to take effect by a divided federal appeals court in Chicago, but civil rights lawyers lodged an emergency appeal before the Supreme Court.

In North Carolina, a federal appeals court blocked new rules that ended same-day registration and barred the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The judges said the changes would violate the Voting Rights Act and discriminate against blacks. The state's attorneys filed an emergency appeal last week.

The abortion issue could also return to the court later in the term. Arizona wants to enforce a law that limits when women can use drugs to end early pregnancies, but the law was blocked by an appeals court in California.

Last week, Texas won an appeals court ruling that allows it to enforce a strict law that shut down most of the state's abortion clinics. The law said these clinics must meet all the standards of an "ambulatory surgical center" and their doctors must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The combined rules forced all of the clinics to close, except those in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.

More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court said states may regulate the practice of abortion, but may not put an "undue burden" on women seeking to end a pregnancy. The justices could take up the Texas or Arizona case to decide on how far states may go in regulating abortions.