WASHINGTON-The highest court in the United States will hear a number of potentially landmark cases this year, and still three of its members haven't pursued a landmark decision. The Supreme Court begins its 2009-2010 term Monday.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joins the other eight members of the Supreme Court this term, replacing Justice David Souter. While she is expected to vote with the three other liberal justices-John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Stephen Breyer-she could provide some surprises. She navigated her Senate confirmation hearings without revealing how she might rule on issues like abortion or gun rights. She backpedaled during those hearings from some earlier statements about her judicial philosophy, like engaging empathy to make decisions.
Neither Chief Justice John Roberts nor Justice Samuel Alito-the other two most recent additions to the court-have pushed for a landmark ruling on a constitutional question, operating more as judicial minimalists even as they are considered among the more conservative of the justices, along with Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia. Roberts joined the court in 2005 and Alito was added in 2006. Before Roberts' arrival, the court hadn't changed justices for 11 years, so the last few years have been a real shake-up.
Between the four conservative justices and the four liberals, Justice Anthony Kennedy often serves as the swing vote. Few can predict the direction of the court this year, but many are waiting to see whether Roberts and Alito push further to the right. Speculation is swirling that 89-year-old Justice Stevens, who is in good health, could retire at the end of this term because he hired only one clerk instead of the typical four.
The cases of most interest this term address First and Second Amendment rights. The court will probably issue an opinion soon on Citizens United vs. Federal Elections Commission, potentiallydetermining whether a ban of a partisan documentary on Hillary Clinton violated free speech. The case reevaluates current campaign finance law, which some of the conservative justices believe chills free speech. (See "Supreme test," Sept. 26, 2009.)
Another First Amendment case revolves around the Mojave cross, a federally designated World War I memorial on federal land erected in 1934. The American Civil Liberties Union originally lodged that the 8-foot cross violates the separation of church and state, and the National Park Service covered the memorial. Supporters of the memorial in Congress tried but failed to transfer the land to private hands. Congress did, however, elevate the cross' status by designating it recently as the nation's primary memorial to those who died in WWI. The case will be argued Tuesday.
Justices will also hear a Second Amendment case appealing Chicago's ban on handguns, a case some have compared to the 2008 one where the high court overturned the District of Columbia's ban on handguns. As laws stand now, the constitutional provision of an individual's right to bear arms applies to federal jurisdictions (Washington included), but not to states or localities.
On Sunday C-SPAN premiered its documentary The Supreme Court: Home to America's Highest Court, complete with rare interviews with all 11 of the living justices, pulling back the curtain on an institution that remains opaque to many Americans. Television cameras and photography are still forbidden in the court.