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Published: Sunday, 10/2/2005

New chief justice to encounter thorny docket

BY MICHAEL McGOUGH
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

During the 2005-2006 Supreme Court term that begins tomorrow, Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr., and his colleagues will confront several issues Justice Roberts declined to discuss in detail at his confirmation hearings, including abortion and a "right to die."

The nine justices - including Sandra Day O'Connor, who has agreed to remain on the court until her successor is confirmed - also will rule in cases involving Toledo's Jeep plant.

The court's 2005-2006 docket will grow as the justices agree to other cases, but one likely addition to the case list will be heard without Chief Justice Roberts. That is Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, a case in which then-Judge Roberts joined two other judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in upholding the military tribunals created by the Bush Administration to try suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

The following are some of the most important cases on the 2005-2006 docket:

  • FEDERALISM: The justices will rule on several cases dealing with the relative powers of the state and federal governments.

    On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments in Gonzales vs. Oregon, in which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is appealing a ruling by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the attorney general lacks the authority to prevent physicians in Oregon from dispensing medicine to assist terminally ill people to commit suicide.

    Oregon's voters have twice approved a measure called the Death with Dignity Act, which the Bush Administration sought to frustrate by warning doctors that if they prescribed lethal barbiturates under the law, they would be violating federal narcotics laws.

    The court also will decide whether Congress' right to regulate interstate commerce prevents states from engaging in the common practice of offering tax incentives to companies for expanding inside the state. At issue in DaimlerChrysler Corp. vs. Cuno is an Ohio law under which the automaker received an investment tax credit for building a Jeep assembly plant in Toledo.

    The court will also return to the question of when the Constitution prevents Congress from allowing states to be sued in federal court.

    In Central Virginia Community College vs. Katz, the court will decide whether a trustee supervising the bankruptcy of a bookstore chain can sue a Virginia community college and other state institutions to recover money owed to the store. The larger issue is whether the bankruptcy clause of the Constitution allows Congress to abrogate the states' immunity to being sued in federal court .

    And, in United States vs. Georgia, the court will decide whether a paraplegic inmate at a Georgia prison can sue the state under the Americans With Disabilities Act because prison showers and toilets are not wheelchair-accessible.

  • ABORTION: In Ayotte vs. Planned Parenthood, the court will rule on the constitutionality of a New Hampshire law requiring that parents be notified if a minor seeks an abortion. Although the court has upheld parental-notification laws in the past, this one was blocked by the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston because it did not contain an exception to protect the health of the woman.

    Another abortion case on the docket, Scheidler vs. National Organization for Women, is the third installment of a legal dispute stretching back to the 1980s over whether NOW and abortion clinics can sue violent protesters at clinics in federal court.

    In 1994, the court ruled that NOW and clinics could sue Operation Rescue and the Pro-Life Action Network under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, even if the activists did not have an economic motive for their tactics. But in 2003, the court threw out a racketeering judgment on the grounds that the protesters' acts did not involve robbery or extortion, the main elements of the federal Hobbs Act.

  • FREEDOM OF SPEECH: Two years after upholding most of the McCain-Feingold campaign-reform law, the court will revisit whether and when Congress' interest in reducing the role of money in elections overrides free-speech rights.

    In three cases from Vermont, including Vermont Republican State Committee vs. Sorrell, the court will decide if that state's limitation on spending by candidates for state and local office violates the First Amendment.

    In a landmark 1976 decision, the court said limitations on campaign expenditures, unlike limits on contributions, were unconstitutional. The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Vermont's limits passed muster under that decision because they were narrowly tailored to serve the state's interest in "preventing the reality and appearance of corruption and protecting the time of candidates and elected officials."

    The relationship between the First Amendment and campaign finance will also figure in Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. vs. Federal Election Commission.

    The justices will decide whether an anti-abortion group can challenge provisions in the McCain-Feingold law placing limits on the use of money donated by corporations or unions to pay for political advertising close to an election. In 2003, the court ruled that the law was not unconstitutional on its face.

    In another major First Amendment case, the court will decide whether Congress violated the "associational" rights of American law schools by requiring that they provide equal access to recruiters for the armed services.

    Virtually every law school in the nation requires recruiters to sign a statement affirming that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. After law schools turned away recruiters because of the armed services' policies against open homosexuality, Congress passed the Solomon amendment in 1994, ordering law schools that receive federal funds to welcome military recruiters.

    The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia ruled 2-1 that the Solomon amendment violated the First Amendment.

    Contact Michael McGough at: mmcgough@nationalpress.com or 202-662-7575.



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