Term Limits Dominate Supreme Court Agenda

New session also to take up age discrimination, school desegregation

AMID a stampede by voters across the United States to restrict lawmakers' tenure, the United States Supreme Court will rule by next spring on whether states may limit the number of terms served by members of Congress. Voters in 15 states already have approved term limits for their congressional representatives, and term-limit measures will appear on ballots in seven other states in November.

So an appeal from a ruling by the Arkansas Supreme Court that state-imposed limits on congressional terms violate the US Constitution will be one of the most closely watched cases in the high court's new term, which begins Oct. 3.

Among the other cases that await the nine Supreme Court justices when they reconvene on the traditional first Monday in October are controversies involving school desegregation, age discrimination, guns in schools, and the right of a death-row inmate to prove he is innocent with new evidence.

The justices have selected fewer than half of the appeals cases that they will decide by June, however. Some 50 to 60 more cases will be accepted in the months ahead.

For the second consecutive term, a new justice will occupy the junior member's seat at the left end of the bench. Stephen Breyer was confirmed by the Senate in July to succeed Justice Harry Blackmun, who retired after 24 years on the court.

Like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined the court last year, Justice Breyer is regarded as a moderate liberal. He is expected to take a generally liberal line on individual-rights issues, but he could be more conservative in dealing with economic and criminal-law issues.

Yet many court watchers believe that Breyer will join a group of justices whose views defy easy labeling. Besides Justice Ginsburg, they include Justices David Souter and, in some areas of the law, Sandra Day O'Connor.

These jurists tend to follow a pragmatic, case-by-case approach to issues. Often some members of this group will vote with the court's conservative wing, but, as sometimes happened last term, they can be expected occasionally to join with liberal Justice John Paul Stevens to outvote the conservatives.

The conservative wing includes Chief Justice William Rehnquist together with Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and (somewhat less consistently) Anthony Kennedy.

Here are some of the cases, in addition to the term-limits case, that will be decided by the Supreme Court this term:

r School desegregation. The state of Missouri asks the court to declare that a court-ordered desegregation plan in Kansas City that began in the early 1980s is no longer necessary. The state has borne much of the cost of the elaborate plan, which has included the creation of magnet schools. The state argues that the success of the plan is improperly measured by students' test scores rather than by traditional integration standards.

r Age discrimination. When Christine McKennon, then 62, was fired by the Nashville (Tenn.) Banner in 1990 after 39 years on the job, she sued the paper, claiming age discrimination. Later the paper learned that prior to her discharge, she improperly obtained confidential company documents regarding severance policy.

The company argues that, since McKennon could have been fired for misconduct, it is shielded from bias liability. McKennon says the paper should be held accountable for what she says was the illegally motivated discharge, to deter future discrimination.

* Schools and guns. A San Antonio high-school student who brought a pistol to school in 1992 was sentenced to six months in prison under a 1990 federal statute that outlaws possession of a gun within 1,000 feet of any school. A federal appeals court struck down the law as unconstitutional, however, ruling that it was not based on any of the enumerated powers (not even the highly elastic power to regulate interstate commerce) granted to Congress by the Constitution.

r Capital punishment. Missouri prison inmate Lloyd Schlup was sentenced to death for allegedly murdering a prison guard in 1984. Now Mr. Schlup seeks to reopen the case in federal court, claiming to have new evidence that proves he was eating lunch in the prison cafeteria at the time of the stabbing. This is the latest in a line of cases asking whether a claim of innocence alone, based on new evidence, requires federal review of an otherwise fair state-court conviction with no procedural violations of the Constitution or federal law. Opponents contend that allowing federal review will open the floodgates to a tide of dubious innocence claims by death-row convicts.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.