Landmark docket facing Supreme Court
The US Supreme Court - which legal observers have labeled an ''activist'' tribunal - could enhance this reputation with landmark decisions this term in the areas of criminal justice, civil rights, and church and state relations.Skip to next paragraph
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The curtain lifts on the 1983-84 session this week with 112 cases already set for argument. The range of issues include sex discrimination, restraints on business, capital punishment, and state involvement in religious exercises.
Observers say the court could significantly change the course of American jurisprudence if it (1) decides to adopt a ''good faith'' exemption of the exclusionary rule, a 70-year-old guideline affecting the admissibility of police-gathered evidence in court; (2) reverses several decades of affirmative-action policies in the hiring and firing of municipal workers; and ( 3) chips away more of the ''wall of separation'' between church and state by allowing some form of public prayer in the schools and by permitting cities or states to sponsor religious displays.
Highly controversial cases involving these issues are on the docket or are likely to be added as the court adjusts its final calendar.
The court is heavy on seniority. Eight justices have served longer than the historical average of 11 years and some may be considering retirement. Only Justices John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor have served less time. Among those rumored to be considering retirement is Chief Justice Warren E. Burger.
Constitutional scholars predict that whoever is elected to the White House next year could have the opportunity to appoint at least four new justices by 1988 and determine the court's dominant direction. So far, Mrs. O'Connor, the high tribunal's first woman member, has been President Reagan's only appointee. Scholars say her early opinions seem compatible with the President's social policies and philosophy of judicial -restraint.
Some analysts say that if Mr. Reagan for some reason decides not to seek reelection or if his ability to win a second term is in doubt, senior conservatives on the court could decide to retire before the end of 1984 - giving the President the opportunity to seat one or more justices who agree with his philosophy.
Supreme Court experts now tend to agree that although recent decisions show the current court leans ''right of center,'' the tribunal still exhibits marked judicial independence. A major test of this independence may come this term, however, when an unusually large number of cases on appeal come with administration briefs. The White House is urging a tougher stance toward criminals and the accused, less government intervention in civil rights matters, and a lifting of the yoke of regulation from business, particularly in antitrust laws.
In reference to several business-related cases on the new docket, Bruce E. Fein, who conducts an annual review of significant Supreme Court decisions for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, says the fact that the high court has agreed to review these cases indicates ''a willingness to reexamine long-held antitrust doctrines'' and ''expand the freedom of businessmen'' to engage in commerce ''without being liable to treble damages.''