US Supreme Court unlikely to blaze new legal trails

The US Supreme Court, which has given mixed signals on key social issues, is expected to continue on a zigzag path in its new term this fall. When it convenes Monday (Oct. 6), the court will face questions on abortion, racial quotas, and public access to trials. But the justices are not expected to blaze new legal trails in the coming months.

The court now is now dealing with "marginal issues on the borderlines" of earlier innovations, says Harvard law Prof. Laurence H. Tribe. It is now filing in details and making refinements, he says.

On the opening day the nine justices will again look at abortion rights. After ruling in 1973 that women have a constitutional right to choose abortion during the early stages of pregnancy, the court last term backtracked to say that Congress could refuse to pay for abortions for poor women.

Now the question is whether a state (Utah) can require a doctor to notify the parents of a minor before performing an abortion.

The court will also again take up the question of whether it is constitutionally legal to give preference to minorities and women and to set quotas for racial balance. A suit against the California prison system, for example, challenges a policy that gives minorities and women preference in job promotions and transfers.

In a reverse twist to the racial quota question, black youngsters in Chicago are suing because they were excluded from two public schools by a quota system. The Chicago School Department says that it set a limit on the number of black students to maintain a racial balance and to prevent "white flight."

The Supreme Court has already given limited approval for "affirmative action" programs, which set racial quotas. During the last term it said that the government could require that some of its contracts be awarded to minority-owned businesses. But that action would aid minorities. What happens when black students fell that they are harmed by a racial quota, as in Chicago?

In the area of public access to trials, the Supreme Court will decide whether the public has a right to watch trials on television -- even if the defendant objects.

In this case, two former Miami Beach policemen are charging that they were denied a fair trial because the State of Florida allowed TV cameras in the courtroom. The two were tried and convicted of burglarizing a Miami Beach restaurant.

At least 28 states are reported to be allowing cameras in courtrooms on either an experimental or permanent basis. Florida, one of the pioneers in courtroom television, has argued that the cameras have not harmed the defendants.

The Supreme Court, which last term affirmed the right of the press to be present during trials, now will decide whether to go even further by allowing the public to view court sessions from their living rooms.

In another major case, the court this term is almost certain to rule on the constitutionality of the all-male draft. A US district court has ruled that the draft law conflicts with the Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process because women are not included.

Although many of the cases that are already on the docket deal with some of the most difficult social issues of today, observers expect few clear new mandates.

Says Harvard's Professor Tribe, "The country as a whole is in some confusion about values and how they clash. The court is in a weak position to find answers to deep questions that the rest of the world finds imponderable."

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