PRIVACY and individual choice in personal matters will underline debate in the nation's highest legal forum this term as the US Supreme Court settles down to business today. Among more than 140 cases to be decided between now and July are several dealing with governmental authority to require extraordinary measures to prolong human life over the objection of family in cases of extreme debilitation. The right of the public sector to closely regulate abortion will also be considered.
The so-called right-to-life case breaks new ground for the court and embraces not only legal questions but ethical and religious considerations. The latter represents a continuing string of cases testing the structure of Roe v. Wade, the landmark abortion decision of 1973 that has spurred public controversy in the United States.
Supreme Court watchers say the rationale of individual justices in deciding these cases could be of greater significance than the results of any specific decision. John Powell, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, says there may be no ``blockbuster'' cases on the docket. But he suggests that the public closely watch the ``ideological agenda'' of the justices to understand what the court is doing.
Mr. Powell and others concede, however, that the predicted abrupt shift to the political right led by conservative justices - appointed by former President Reagan - has not been fully apparent in rulings of the past two years.
The appointments of Associate Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy to the court to join Associate Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Byron White and Chief Justice William Rehnquist has given conservatives a narrow 5-to-4 edge over liberal Associate Justices Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, Thurgood Marshall, and John Paul Stevens.
It is pointed out that the possible retirement of any or all of senior members Blackmun, Brennan, and Marshall would allow President Bush to shore up the conservative majority with right-of-center replacements. A Bush appointee is likely, however, to be more mainstream than other Reagan choices Robert Bork and Douglas Ginsburg, both controversial figures who never made it to the court. Judge Bork was rejected by the Senate after a bitter debate over ideology and Judge Ginsburg withdrew from consideration after it was revealed that he had smoked marijuana while a professor at Harvard.
Significant factors that may indicate the thrust and direction of upcoming Supreme Court rulings include:
No apparent immediate threat of kicking over long-established legal precedents. For example, although there is a strong thread of conservatism among the majority, the justices last year upheld a Missouri statute restricting abortion, but did not rule it out or overturn the privacy principle on which pro-choice advocates base their arguments.
A Justice Department under Attorney General Richard Thornburgh that seems a less active advocate (than under Edwin Meese III) of the theory of ``original intent'' - which would roll back affirmative action, abortion, and other social rulings.
Changes in the court's civil rights language, with more frequent references to women's interests than to their rights.
The present court's apparent inclination toward balancing concerns of the marketplace and public consensus against constitutional rights of individuals. For example, it has allowed drug-testing of employees in jobs where safety or security is central.
The harder line taken by the justices against crime along with the narrowing of protections for suspects and prisoners. They have, however, refrained from overturning long-established criminal law principles, including Miranda rights and the exclusionary rule, which guarantee the interests of the accused.
General endorsement by the conservative justices of free-speech rights long advocated by liberals. The present court, however, is less protective of freedom of expression when it comes to pornography. And the Justices last term narrowly voted to protect flag-burning as a form of expression sheltered by the Constitution.
During its October sessions, the Supreme Court will hear two cases testing the scope of the federal judiciary's authority to remedy racial discrimination in housing and in schools.
In Spallone v. US, to be heard today, the justices will decide whether a federal court violated the First Amendment rights of local lawmakers in Yonkers, N.Y. It had held them in contempt of court for failing to implement a housing settlement to which the city had earlier agreed.
Missouri v. Jenkins speaks to the right of a federal judge to foster the desegregation of Kansas City, Mo., schools by blocking a Missouri law that limits the amount of property taxes the city can collect to fund its school system.
Other cases deal with judicial procedure in imposing the death penalty, regulating political speech, and the rights of agencies to challenge acts of Congress.
An important church-and-state matter tests the federal Equal Access Act of 1984. Here a Nebraska school board is pitted against a club of students who seek to meet on a high school campus for religious purpose. The school board says such access is in violation of the First Amendment proscription against the entanglement of government and religion. The students claim free-speech protections give them the right to assemble. The present court has been split over whether the state should accommodate religion or maintain the historic wall between church and state.
Cases that could be added as the 1989-90 Supreme Court term proceeds deal with issues of AIDS testing, child custody, and the validity of using in court the videotaped testimony of pre-schoolers in connection with sexual abuse charges.