THE first Supreme Court session of 1996 opens today with a week of cases more compelling than usual for this term.
For the next three days, the court hears arguments on subjects ranging from computer software, to congressional powers, to a bitter dispute over how US census figures are arrived at - a case that may be one of the more significant of the year.
Tuesday, the Rodney King beating incident rises yet again. The court will hear arguments on whether the two police officers convicted in 1993 of violating Mr. King's civil rights received punishments that were too light.
Also, adding weight to the term, the court agreed Friday to take an important Colorado free-speech case that will test the constitutionality of spending limits that political parties place on their candidates.
Still, the high court docket in 1996 is one of the lightest ever. In recent years, the nine justices, often polarized, have tried to avoid controversy. But this week's cases will be highly contested and will likely split the court.
In today's arguments, a showdown over computer software may change the copyright rules for the industry - a change with potentially great commercial impact.
The dispute pits two major software firms, Lotus Development Corp. and Borland International Inc., against each other. Borland's "Quattro" financial software now operates on the various "menus" of symbols and commands that Lotus innovated for its popular "Lotus 1-2-3" spreadsheet software. That makes it easy - too easy, says Lotus - for consumers to switch to the Borland product.
Lotus says its menus are protected by existing copyright laws. Borland claims the copyright does not apply to software systems such as Lotus 1-2-3, arguing that such systems have become a standard in the industry.
What the nine justices must decide is whether the Lotus computer user menu is so standard that current federal copyright laws do not apply.
On Tuesday, the court hears a death- penalty case that dips into newly raised questions about the way power is delegated between the president and Congress.
The case at hand comes out of a military court that sentenced Army Pvt. Dwight Loving to death after finding he had robbed and murdered two cab drivers and attempted to murder another during a 24-hour spree in 1988 that also included two convenience-store armed robberies.
The court must decide whether President Reagan in 1984 was given proper congressional authority to issue an executive order on the death penalty in military courts - the guidelines under which Mr. Loving was sentenced. Rules for the death penalty in military courts are generally set by Congress. But the government will argue that Congress rightly allowed the executive branch to refine those rules.
Behind the Loving case is a larger constitutional issue: Does Congress fulfill its responsibility to the "will of the people" if it delegates excessive lawmaking power to federal agencies?
A variety of liberal and conservative justices in recent decades have opposed Congress's increased desire to delegate power - "lawmaking by bureaucratic decree," says David Schoenbrod, a New York Law School professor who filed an amicus brief in the Loving case. In 1984, for example, now-Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that government agency regulations ought to be enforced only if enacted by Congress.
Finally, on Wednesday a high-profile case on census figures pits minority and urban interests against federal officials and rural states.
A coalition of urban cities and the city and state of New York will argue that Commerce Department officials did not adjust statistics for the 1990 US population census, when they knew the census undercounted ethnic and racial minorities. They want the secretary of Commerce to justify his decision not to revise the census.
Because census figures determine the reapportionment of Congress, the shape of legislative districts, the makeup of city councils, and government funding formulas, the issue is hotly contested.
The Commerce Department under Secretary Ron Brown (and the Clinton administration) will argue that Bush administration Commerce officials acted in good faith using the best statistical formulas available. They say the issue is "distributive" accuracy, not "numeric" accuracy.
But the Second Circuit Court of Appeals found in 1994 that the census adjustment methods, which were required after a 1988 federal case brought by the city and state of New York, were more accurate. (The 1990 adjusted US census figure is 254,902,609; the Census Bureau reported it as 249,632,692.)