Social Issues Pack High-Court Docket

Assisted suicide, child support cases top list

The US Supreme Court opens the new year not with a mere bang - but with a string of explosions.

Between today and Jan. 15, the nation's highest legal body will hear more than a half-dozen important cases, spanning such controversial issues as assisted suicide, collection of child-support payments, drug testing, and sexual harassment.

First on the docket: a sensitive Arizona child-support case. The justices will hear arguments today on whether states can be sued if they do not fulfill federal laws to help collect money from "deadbeat" parents.

Forty-two states oppose such lawsuits and what they consider costly and unnecessary federal oversight. Such a case would normally be one of the biggest of the term, with implications for the lives of some 19 million American parents and the children who receive court-ordered payments.

Yet it will be followed on Wednesday by a major consolidated case on the ethically and culturally contentious issue of the "right to die," or assisted suicide.

In fact, allowing consenting adults to order their own deaths, albeit with the consultation and assistance of a physician, has never been legal in this country. Experts say lower court rulings in Washington and New York, which did legalize a right to die, have brought the most difficult moral dilemma before the court since the Roe v. Wade abortion case in 1972.

And tomorrow, the court will hear arguments on sexual harassment that could change US law - establishing bodily sexual harassment as a violation of civil rights. Next Monday, the court hears arguments on presidential immunity - Clinton v. Jones, which will determine whether President Clinton can be brought to court on civil charges stemming from alleged misconduct prior to becoming president. The following Tuesday brings a Georgia case that may determine whether candidates for elected state office can be required to submit to drug testing.

"This is becoming a sort of blockbuster term," says Texas Tech law school dean Thomas Baker, author of a new book on the constitution. "You've got [Justices] Ginsberg and Breyer starting to hit full stride, and you've got major decisions coming out of the Ninth Circuit."

Part of the Supreme Court's job is to settle differences between the regional federal circuit courts, and review decisions from those courts that may misinterpret or exceed high court precedent. The Ninth Circuit, the nation's largest, covering most of the West Coast, has a strong mix of liberal and conservative jurists; this term, the high court is reviewing numerous Ninth Circuit circuit decisions including its ban on an "English only" law in Arizona, a decision legalizing physician assisted suicide last spring, and the child support case.

Today's case, Blessing v. Freestone, began when five mothers who could not afford to collect child support from the fathers, sought relief from an Arizona state agency. Part of the agreement a state makes when accepting federal welfare funds (some $40 billion nationally since 1990) is that it will make an effort to pursue and collect child support when the custodial parent cannot.

The Arizona mothers say the state agency made no real effort to help them. The state says the mothers' claim of a right to sue is vague, that Congress only wants "substantial compliance" with its laws on accepting funds, and that were every unfortunate mother to sue officials, the state would spend its funds on legal defense rather than enforcement of law. "If we get sued, that's a problem," says William Leslie, special assistant attorney general of Illinois. "It doesn't matter if you have a million attorneys and judges. If a father doesn't want to pay, he won't. It's not like the state is at fault here. But that's what I'm reading in the newspapers."

Last year, the Ninth Circuit agreed that the mothers do have a right to sue. In today's case, that opinion is being joined by the federal government, which also wants states to comply with the law to help collect child support.

Advocates say that states have become expert at collecting funds such as parking tickets; but they let "deadbeat dads" off the hook. Some lawyers present evidence that getting noncustodial parents to pay eases the welfare burden on the state. "The Arizona parents want the state to comply with the agreement they contracted for," says Leora Gershenzon of the National Center for Youth Law in San Francisco. "If the states can't collect or make an effort to, they shouldn't take the federal money."

The high court also hears a "motor voter" case today about whether Mississippi can change the rules in the way it administers its voting laws. In 1995, the state gave training and informed voters that they would be registered when they filled out federal forms issued when getting a driver's license. Two months later, the state quietly reversed that policy - requiring voter registration to occur separately.

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