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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.

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On Roberts and Justice Alito, analysts are awaiting the court's decision in a potential landmark campaign-finance case heard during a special argument session Sept. 9.

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At issue in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is whether corporations can be barred from spending their treasury money on politically related advertisements during federal election season. The FEC, citing a 2002 campaign-finance law, said yes. Citizens United, a conservative nonprofit advocacy group, said the move amounted to government censorship.

Roberts's and Alito's positions in the case are being scrutinized because the justices were confronted with a similar issue in 2006 and refused to join their conservative colleagues in overturning the underlying legal precedents. Now they are being encouraged to take that step again.

Any move to strike down a portion of Congress's 2002 campaign-finance law and an earlier 1990 Supreme Court precedent will be portrayed by liberal critics as a particularly aggressive assertion of power by the high court's conservative wing. And it could be a defining moment for the emerging Roberts Court.

But it won't mean the conservatives will win every big battle at the Supreme Court. With the general 4-to-4 conservative-liberal split on hot-button cases, Kennedy continues to hold the power to decide many of America's most contentious disputes.

One such case involves two Florida teens who are serving life sentences for crimes they committed as juveniles. At issue in Graham v. Florida and Sullivan v. Florida is whether the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars Florida from keeping the young men imprisoned for the rest of their lives without any possibility for parole. At age 13, Joe Sullivan raped and robbed a 72-year-old woman. Terrance Graham committed a series of armed robberies at ages 16 and 17.

Kennedy will probably be the deciding vote in the case. In 2005, he provided the key vote to declare the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional. The question in the case is whether the same reasoning applies in the circumstances of the two Florida teens.

Free speech is also on the court's radar this term. At issue in US v. Stevens is whether Congress has the power to ban possession and distribution of images of animal cruelty, such as pit bull fights. A Virginia man was charged under a 1999 federal statute for including footage of a dogfight in Japan (where such fights are legal) in a documentary film he produced and distributed in the US. The central question is whether the First Amendment protects such depictions.

In another Florida case, the justices have agreed to examine a property rights dispute in which owners of seafront property complain that the state used a beach renourishment program to strip them of their legal rights as waterfront property owners.

Under the FlorĀ­ida plan, sand was pumped onto the beach and the state claimed the new dry land for itself. Private waterfront property suddenly became landlocked.

A state appeals court ruled that the owners were due just compensation from the state, but Florida's Supreme Court upheld the state action.

In US v. Comstock, the court will examine a federal law that allows the government to hold alleged sexual predators indefinitely in protective custody once they are deemed to be "sexually dangerous," even after they have served a full criminal sentence.