Technical Rulings Mark Quiet High-Court Term Two Key Cases - Line-Item Veto and Sexual Harassment - Could Be Grand Finale to an Otherwise Low-Profile Year

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By the end of last June, the US Supreme Court had decided a raft of life-and-death cases that touched millions of Americans and gave the court a confident new luster in its place among the federal branches. This year, however, the high court heads into its final months - usually a time of much anticipation - with few national issues to weigh, and with a low-key, businesslike demeanor.

This spring, technical issues and rulings for smaller interest groups are occupying the justices - not grand constitutional questions. This doesn't mean the court has lost its luster. Actually, experts say a hiatus from tough cases and the scrutiny that goes with them may add to the image of the court as an institution of high and lofty purpose.

Nor is the year a write-off. This month the justices will hear the two cases most likely to characterize this court term: A "line item veto" case could give the White House significant new powers. Also, the most dynamic of four sexual-harassment cases taken this year comes up, something that could change the law by making harassment more a civil-rights claim than a workplace claim. Still, compared with last term, the court is in a Sargasso Sea of calm. Last April the justices had before them 12 hard constitutional problems - cases like a right to an assisted suicide, religious freedoms for minority faiths, the powers of Congress, separation of church and state, White House immunity, and smut and censorship on the Internet. This year contains no cases of that magnitude. "I can't name a single Supreme Court decision this year that has important constitutional ramifications for the nation," says Evan Caminker, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and former clerk to the late Justice William Brennan. Affirmative action Last October, it seemed the high court would make history on race and affirmative action this year. A case out of Piscataway, N.J., could have resulted in a five-vote majority eliminating the formula that allows race to be considered as a factor in making employment decisions for teachers and other public servants. Also, the high court was weighing whether to take a challenge to a sweeping referendum in California (Proposition 209) that would eliminate race as a factor in schools, jobs, and state agencies. But without comment the court refused to hear Prop. 209, then last fall a civil-rights coalition settled the Piscataway case before it was scheduled to be argued. …