Supreme Court term gets off to fast start

The justices are set to hear a number of big cases, and their docket may also include any election disputes.

If the US Supreme Court were a grocery store, the justices would be starting their 2004-05 term Monday with an announcement: "Cleanup in Aisle 3."

On the first day of the term, the justices are set to confront the messy implications of a landmark 5-to-4 decision handed down in late June. The ruling has placed in doubt the constitutionality of the federal sentencing guidelines - potentially undermining tens of thousands of criminal sentences and spawning a tidal wave of litigation that could clog the courts for years.

In what promises to be another important and surprising year at the nation's highest court, the justices will also take up cases involving the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty, the clash of federal and state laws over use of medical marijuana, and state efforts to regulate the interstate sale of wine.

The current roster of justices has served together for 10 years, longer than any other group of justices since the 1820s. Interest in a possible retirement is always high during a presidential election year, but many court watchers say they see no indication of a desire or need by any of the justices to step down.

While last year's term produced historic decisions defining presidential power during wartime and upholding the rights of detainees, the 2004-05 term could also make history - in a way that has many legal analysts on edge.

The new term marks the first time the justices will be sitting during a presidential election since the controversial Bush v. Gore decision four years ago. With battalions of Republican and Democrat lawyers poised to challenge even the smallest issue related to balloting, the court may again be invited to grapple with the implications of the growing litigiousness of US elections.

Will judges - and Supreme Court justices - respond in ways that allow elections to be decided the old-fashioned way, by voters? Or will politically connected judges allow politically connected lawyers to game the election system in ways that favor one political party or candidate?

The high court declined this week to enter the election fray concerning attempts by presidential candidate Ralph Nader to gain access to the ballot in Oregon. Lawyers working on behalf of John Kerry have been seeking to exclude Mr. Nader from various state ballots on the theory that a Nader candidacy might drain support that would otherwise go to Mr. Kerry.

Prof. Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University Law School told a recent conference at the Cato Institute in Washington that the stage has been set for an explosion of election-related lawsuits. "We might see weeks of uncertainty by this legalization of politics," Mr. Rosen says.

Overall, the Supreme Court receives 9,000 appeals each year. The justices agree to hear only about 80 of them. More than half of the calendar has been filled, and the rest of the cases will be selected in the weeks ahead.

Argument sessions are set for two-week periods each month through April. Decisions are handed down throughout the year, with the most contentious and important often coming at term's end in June.

One exception will probably be the sentencing-guidelines case. Recognizing the turmoil in the federal courts caused by their decision in Blakely v. Washington last June, the court agreed to hear two cases (US v. Booker and US v. Fanfan) examining the issue. The justices scheduled a special oral-argument session for Monday afternoon. At issue is to what extent federal judges can use the sentencing guidelines to enhance punishments when the facts they rely on to trigger the greater penalty were not presented and proved to a jury beyond a reasonable doubt.

Last term's Blakely decision reversed a sentence issued under guidelines enacted in Washington State. The high court ruled that the state's guidelines violated the jury-trial requirement of the Sixth Amendment. The court will now decide whether the federal sentencing guidelines also violate the same constitutional guarantee.

Other cases include one called Roper v. Simmons, in which the justices will review a Missouri Supreme Court decision that struck down the juvenile death penalty as a form of cruel and unusual punishment. The state court relied on a 2002 ruling by the US Supreme Court that executing mentally retarded individuals violated Eighth Amendment protections. Those same principles should apply to 16- and 17-year-old defendants, the state court ruled.

At issue in the case is whether a majority of justices now believe that "evolving standards of decency" in the United States have shifted enough to support a holding that executing those who are 16 and 17 when they commit crimes is so cruel and unusual that it violates the Constitution. All eyes will be on Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy. If one of them sides with the court's liberal wing on the death-penalty issue, it will probably produce a landmark decision further restricting the use of the death penalty.

Also on the docket is a property-rights case, Kelo v. New London, that challenges whether the government can use its power of eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to private developers.

In the civil rights area, the court will examine whether the Age Discrimination in Employment Act bars disparate-impact discrimination in addition to intentional acts of age-based bias. The court will also decide in Jackson v. Birmingham Board of Education whether the male coach of a girl's high school basketball team can sue under a gender equality law after he lost his job for complaining that female athletes were treated as second-class citizens.

The court will also examine the scope of the Americans With Disabilities Act. The justices must decide in Spector v. Norwegian Cruise Line whether the law requires foreign-owned cruise ships sailing from American ports to provide public accommodations for disabled individuals.

Five cases to watch

Federal sentencing guidelines

Do they violate the jury-trial requirement of the Sixth Amendment?

Juvenile death penalty

Is it a form of cruel and unusual punishment?

Medical marijuana

Can residents who rely on a state law permitting the use of medical marijuana be prosecuted under a federal antidrug law?

Property rights

Can the government use eminent domain to take private property and turn it over to private developers?

Gender equality

Can a male coach sue under a gender equality law after he lost his job for complaining about the treatment of female athletes?

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