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Old hand, new docket

Courts | Roberts takes first case like a pro, while key cases test divided court

Issue: "New Orleans' comeback kids," Oct. 22, 2005

Newly minted United States Chief Justice John Roberts took immediate command of his new domain as the high court began working through its 49-case 2005-2006 docket earlier this month.

Mr. Roberts "acted as though he had been chief justice for 20 years," said American Center for Law and Justice chief counsel Jay Sekulow, who observed the proceedings during oral arguments in Gonzalez v. Oregon on Oct. 5. "He had a tremendous command of the courtroom and was clearly the chief."

From the tenor of his questioning, the new chief also clearly favored the U.S. government's argument in Gonzalez, Mr. Sekulow said. A long-running legal duel over physician-assisted suicide, the case may prove to be one of the term's blockbusters.

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Its roots stretch back to 1994, when Oregon voters approved physician-assisted suicide. In 2001, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft issued a directive prohibiting doctors from prescribing federally controlled drugs to help patients kill themselves. Oregon challenged the directive in federal court, arguing that it usurped the state's authority to regulate the practice of medicine. In 2004, the 9th Circuit Court agreed, triggering a Supreme Court appeal.

In high-court briefs, the case emerged as one of states' rights versus the use of federally controlled substances for what U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement argued is an "illegitimate medical purpose." Mr. Sekulow, who filed an amicus brief in support of the U.S. government's position, watched the justices closely on Oct. 5. Retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, he said, "was clearly not sympathetic to the federal government's position."

If Justice O'Connor is still on the court when the case is decided, Mr. Sekulow predicted she would create a slim 5-4 majority in which the court upholds the right of Oregon physicians to help patients kill themselves using federally controlled substances. More likely, he said, is that Justice O'Connor will step down before the case is decided, creating a 4-4 tie.

If that happens, attorneys will have to reargue the case-highlighting why conservatives and liberals attach such a premium to the Harriet Miers nomination to the divided court.

Other cases important to conservatives include:

  • Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Benificiente Uniao Do Vegetal

At issue: The use of illegal drugs as a religious sacrament

U.S. Customs agents in 1999 seized 30 gallons of hoasca tea containing dimethyltryptamine, a hallucinogenic controlled substance, from Jeffrey Bronfman, the leader of the Brazil-based sect, O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao Do Vegetal. Mr. Bronfman said he used the tea in his church's religious ceremonies. In 2003, the 10th Circuit ruled that under religious-freedom laws, he could. The United States appealed, based on its interest in banning certain controlled substances. Oral arguments: Nov. 1.

  • Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England

At issue: Parental notification

The State of New Hampshire appealed to the high court to reinstate a law requiring parental notification before minors can get an abortion. Oral arguments: Nov. 8.

  • National Organization for Women, Inc. v. Scheidler

At issue: Pro-life activism

Now entering its 20th year, NOW v. Scheidler is the case that tarred pro-life activist Joseph Scheidler and co-defendants as racketeers. The Supreme Court overturned that judgment in 2003. But the high court agreed to re-review the case after a lower court ignored its order to vacate. Oral arguments: Nov. 30.

  • Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights

At issue: Military recruiters on law-school campuses

After some law schools began barring military recruiters from campus because the military bars homosexuals, Congress in 1994 amended the defense appropriations bill to bar those law schools from receiving federal funds. "If they are too good-or too righteous-to treat our nation's military with the respect it deserves," Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) said, "then they may also be too good to receive the generous level of taxpayer dollars presently enjoyed." Thirty law schools formed the Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights (FAIR) and sued. Their claim: The withholding of federal dollars violates the schools' First Amendment right to disagree with the government. Years of litigation ensued. Oral arguments: Dec. 6.

-with reporting by Kristin Chapman

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