You might not be able to tell from confirmation hearings that start this week, but the U.S. Supreme Court deals with more than abortion and gay marriage.
Those hot-button issues may well dominate headlines - and raise the most outcry from special interest groups - as John Roberts goes before the U.S. Senate in his quest to become the next chief justice of the court.
But Lawrence attorneys say a host of less-noticed rulings by the court have profoundly shaped the way Kansans live their lives.
"In some ways, one would be hard-pressed to think of any activity that anybody in the United States is engaged in that isn't impacted on some level by decisions that have come down from the Supreme Court," said Richard Levy, a Kansas University law professor and constitutional expert.
The Supreme Court, after all, upheld a federal law requiring states to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21. It was court rulings that upheld challenges against Social Security and required police officers to offer the now-famous "Miranda" ruling when they make an arrest. And in coming years, it will be the court that has the last word on how far the federal government - in the pursuit of terrorists - can peek into the private lives of U.S. citizens.
The examples go on and on.
"It does affect us on a daily basis," said Lawrence defense attorney John Frydman, "but we just don't know it."
Coming changes in the court - the seats of late Chief Justice William Rehnquist and retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor will be filled - could drive that point home.
"The issues that make a difference tend not to be ones you can say simply in a list," Levy said.
"There (are) a lot of decisions that will address the validity of, I don't know, environmental regulations - if the Supreme Court upholds the regulations, the air will be cleaner; if it strikes them down, the air will be less clean. And not many people notice."
Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., is a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will take first crack at Roberts' nomination. His office provided the Journal-World with some recent examples that show the length of the court's reach:
¢ Kelo v. New London: This ruling on a Connecticut case held that local, state and federal governments can use their powers of "eminent domain" to take private land and give it to other private owners if the transfer will create jobs and generate taxes for government. That power was used in Wyandotte County to clear the way for the Kansas Speedway.
"I know that's a sore spot for a lot of the country," Frydman said.
¢ MGM v. Grokster: The Supreme Court ruled in June that online file-sharing services can be sued if users illegally download music and movies in violation of copyright laws. That could be a big deal in Lawrence, where several KU students have been sued for downloading music.
¢ Illinois v. Caballes: The court in January gave police broader search powers during traffic stops, ruling that drug-sniffing dogs can be used to check out motorists even if officers have no reason to suspect they may be carrying narcotics. That gives freer rein to Gero, the drug dog of the Douglas County Sheriff's Department, during traffic stops in and around Lawrence.
"Government," Levy said, "wouldn't look like it does today without the Supreme Court."
Assistant City Manager Dave Corliss oversees legal services at City Hall. He said Supreme Court decisions have determined how clean the city must keep its water, how much authority it has to restrict the size and gaudiness of business signs and even how aggressively it can restrict panhandling downtown.
"It would probably be easier to point to Supreme Court decisions that don't affect the operations of city government," Corliss said.
Often, the Lawrence City Commission and the Kansas Legislature make laws with an eye on avoiding crossing lines that the Supreme Court has drawn.
"The Legislature basically has to kowtow to the Constitution," Frydman said, "and that's the Supreme Court."
The law of the land
The U.S. Supreme Court acts as the pinnacle of judiciary review and law for our country. It consists of eight associate justices and one chief justice. The court's existence is mandated in Article III of the Constitution of the United States. Its primary responsibility is to act as the third branch of government and hold congressional and presidential actions in check with the legal standards set down by the Constitution. Justices are nominated by the president and confirmed by Senate proceedings.
The current agenda
The Supreme Court doesn't just handle hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage. Other cases fly mostly under the radar but can make a difference in your everyday life:
Kelo v. New London - Eminent Domain: The Court held that the government can use its eminent domain power to seize private land for the purpose of economic development. This allows the government (local, state and federal) to seize private land in order to give it to other private owners for economic purposes, as long as the legislature has determined that the economic purpose would be served.
Grokster - Companies who encourage users to infringe copyrights on music and movies by downloading them online, could be held liable for the actions of their customers if they are encouraging the infringement. This likely means that companies like Grokster, who provide illegal file sharing of music and movies, will go out of business.
Illinois v. Caballes - A privacy issue: During a lawful traffic stop, a police dog that determines nothing more than the location of a substance that is not lawful to possess does not violate the Fourth Amendment's protections against unreasonable searches.