Washington — Difficult questions about Americans' constitutional protection against unreasonable searches while in their homes, cars and even in hospital beds lead the Supreme Court's agenda as the justices begin their 2000-01 term Monday.
Some observers, however, say the most important day for the nation's highest court will be election day. The next president will choose the next members of a court that has been divided 5-4 on some of the nation's most explosive issues.
The court this term also is confronting a major challenge to the nation's premier environmental law, the Clean Air Act, and will decide whether people can sue states to enforce the federal ban on discrimination against the disabled.
The term that ended in June was a blockbuster. The justices upheld the Miranda warnings police must give before questioning criminal suspects, let the Boy Scouts ban homosexual troop leaders and struck down Nebraska's "partial-birth" abortion law. They also banned group prayers at public high school football games and prevented rape victims from suing their attackers in federal courts.
The court last week cleared its plate of the massive Microsoft antitrust dispute by sending it to a federal appeals court, delaying a final ruling perhaps for years.
The 47 cases granted review for the new term with about two dozen more to be added in coming months lack the political punch of last year's cases but still will touch the lives of many ordinary Americans.
"It's already looming as a big year for the Fourth Amendment," which protects Americans against unreasonable searches and arrests, said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.
A case that could affect the nation's 185 million licensed drivers asks whether police can arrest people for traffic violations punishable only by a fine. A Texas woman, whose lawyers call her a "typical motorist," says police went too far when they arrested, handcuffed and jailed her because she and her children were not wearing seat belts in the family pickup truck.
Other cases illustrate "the pressure that the war on drugs has exerted on the Fourth Amendment in particular and the Constitution in general," Shapiro said.
The justices will decide whether police can set up traffic checkpoints and stop motorists in hopes of catching people who sell or use illegal drugs.
Police generally need a warrant or a reason to suspect someone of a crime before detaining them for several minutes, and a lower court ruled that drug checkpoints by Indianapolis police likely amounted to unreasonable seizures. But the Supreme Court previously has upheld roadblocks aimed at catching drunken drivers.
Another war-on-drugs case asks whether public hospitals can test pregnant patients for drug use and tell police who tested positive. A South Carolina hospital tested patients' urine without a court warrant, and if the result were positive, women were arrested for endangering the fetus.
A case that was among a dozen granted review last week, when the justices got a head start on their new term, asks whether police need a search warrant to use a device to detect heat coming from someone's home. An Oregon man was charged with growing marijuana after police said a heat-detecting device showed an unusual amount of heat coming from the roof over his garage.
The Clean Air Act dispute could yield a hugely important ruling on environmental protection that might also limit other federal agencies' authority to write rules to implement laws passed by Congress.
Industry groups want the Environmental Protection Agency to consider costs, in addition to health benefits, in setting federal air-quality standards.