Questions surround start of new Supreme Court term
How will Sonia Sotomayor vote? Is John Paul Stevens soon to retire? Will John Roberts and Samuel Alito be more unabashedly conservative? The term begins Monday.
Transition is the word that perhaps best describes the US Supreme Court's 2009-10 term set to begin Monday.Skip to next paragraph
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The coming year offers an opportunity for court watchers to more clearly define the character of the emerging Roberts Court during Chief Justice John Roberts's fifth term on the bench. And it presents a chance far superior to the wishy-washy Senate confirmation hearings to finally learn something of the real Sonia Sotomayor, the high court's newest justice.
Will she be a liberal stalwart or a sometimes ally to the conservatives? If so, in which cases?
The term already includes potential blockbuster cases examining the applicability of Second Amendment gun rights to state and local governments, campaign-finance regulations, life sentences for juveniles, and whether Congress violated the separation of powers when it created an independent accounting oversight board.
The court's options will reveal more than just legal winners and losers. How these disputes are analyzed and decided by the justices will offer legal scholars important clues about the evolving dynamics within the nation's highest court.
In addition to the arrival of a new justice, Justice John Paul Stevens's decision to hire only one law clerk (instead of the usual four) for the 2010-11 term has sparked speculation that he intends to leave the court in June.
Among key trends to watch will be whether Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito decide to put an unabashedly conservative stamp on the high court by joining their conservative colleagues to boldly overturn liberal legal precedents despite earlier pledges of a preference for judicial minimalism.
The broad internal dynamics at the Supreme Court are well established, with four liberal justices and four conservative justices. In the middle, often wielding a tiebreaking fifth vote, is Justice Anthony Kennedy, who leans conservative but sometimes swings to the liberal side in big, high-profile cases.
The arrival of Justice Sotomayor is not expected to significantly change this internal dynamic. Analysts say she should fit comfortably into the liberal wing and is expected to vote in ways similar to David Souter, the justice she replaced.
But she is not Souter. That has some liberals worried and some conservatives hopeful. Early in her legal career, Sotomayor worked as a prosecutor in New York City and later as a federal trial judge. Thus she knows intimately the challenges facing law enforcement officials.
When the high court hears a major case this term on whether police must give precise Miranda warnings before interrogating suspects, court watchers will want to see which Sotomayor votes in the case. Will it be the Latina civil rights activist concerned with defendants' rights, or the former big-city prosecutor concerned with helping the system fight crime and protect victims?
Thomas Goldstein, a lawyer who has often argued before the Supreme Court, says the departure of Mr. Souter and potential retirement of Justice Stevens could result in the court being nudged to the right. This is because their liberal replacements may not command the same respect that allowed Stevens and Souter to sometimes persuade Justice Kennedy to swing to the left.
"When that relationship is broken and you introduce somebody new into the equation, they can't possibly be as persuasive," Mr. Goldstein said in a recent panel discussion at the Cato Institute. "I think the ironic effect of new appointments replacing Justices Stevens and Souter will be to see the court gravitate to the right."