Archive for Sunday, May 14, 2006

Supreme Court faces summer deadline on blockbusters

May 14, 2006

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— Before ending a historic term, the Supreme Court must resolve some potential blockbuster cases involving the president's wartime powers, capital punishment and political boundaries in Texas.

Much attention this term has focused on the two newest justices - John Roberts and Samuel Alito - and on signs of a possible shift to the right on the nine-member court.

With a late June deadline looming, the high court has yet to issue opinions in about 35 cases in which justices have heard arguments. At this point a year ago, the court had the same number of cases pending, a sign the justices' pace has changed little with the arrival of Roberts, who succeeded the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice.

Some headline-grabbing cases are over: a test of Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law, a constitutional challenge to state abortion restrictions and model-reality television star Anna Nicole Smith's fight for a piece of her late husband's estate. Still to be decided are cases involving President Bush's power to order military trials for suspected foreign terrorists held at the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an appeal that will decide when death row inmates should get a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA.

Much talk among court observers, however, concerns the justices' personalities.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, left, stands with Chief Justice John Roberts as they pose on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in this Feb. 16, 2006 file photo.  Before ending a historic term, the Court must resolve some potential blockbuster cases involving the president's wartime powers, capital punishment and political boundaries in Texas. Much attention this term has focused on the two newest justices - Roberts andl Alito - and on signs of a possible shift to the right on the nine-member court.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, left, stands with Chief Justice John Roberts as they pose on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington in this Feb. 16, 2006 file photo. Before ending a historic term, the Court must resolve some potential blockbuster cases involving the president's wartime powers, capital punishment and political boundaries in Texas. Much attention this term has focused on the two newest justices - Roberts andl Alito - and on signs of a possible shift to the right on the nine-member court.

"The real mark of this term is not the issues," said Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former court clerk. "Apart from what happens in the big ticket cases in June, we have a new chief justice for the first time in nearly 20 years and the justices changed seats for the first time in a decade."

With a hard-hitting style of questioning, Roberts immediately changed the tone of the court's argument sessions. Rehnquist was no-nonsense and asked few questions. Roberts has been praised by fellow justices for his smooth operation of the court.

In late January, Samuel Alito won Senate confirmation to replace Sandra Day O'Connor after the failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers. Alito's style is reserved, the opposite of O'Connor, a moderate justice appointed by Ronald Reagan.

Roberts is sidelined in what is considered the biggest case of the term - the military trials at Guantanamo Bay. He had served on an appeals court panel that backed the Bush administration in the case last year and has withdrawn from the appeal.

Alito will not vote in cases that were argued before his arrival. Without O'Connor's vote, justices apparently deadlocked in three cases, requiring rare re-arguments. The abortion case was decided before his confirmation, although Alito will be a swing vote when a different abortion case is argued next fall.

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