Harassment, Welfare Top Court's Docket New Term Opens Today. Clinton-Related Cases and Inmate Appeals May Be Added

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Hewing to the pattern of recent years, the US Supreme Court is poised to hear cases that will tidy up several legal questions, rather than engage in the kind of sweeping constitutional controversies that occupied it 30 years ago.

"This is a court that is most comfortable when making lawyer's law," says Michael Dorf, a professor of constitutional law at Columbia University Law School in New York.

Despite its penchant for legal nitty-gritty, several important issues will occupy the docket of the nation's highest court, including: * Whether school officials may be held liable for their failure to stop the sexual harassment of one student by another. * Whether the Constitution permits use of statistical sampling to help complete the US census rather than relying entirely on an actual head count. * Whether racial gerrymandering was a factor in drawing boundaries for a North Carolina congressional district. * Whether a Chicago loitering ordinance is a valid tool in fighting street gangs. "You almost get the sense of them enjoying disagreements over what it means to carry a firearm in a way they don't enjoy disagreements over hot-button issues like racial discrimination or abortion," says Mr. Dorf. Mark Tushnet, a professor at the Georgetown Law Center in Washington, says the new term may mirror the style of the 1997 term. "As with last year," he says, "they seem to be interested in technical issues, in mopping up statutory details." The docket is only partly in place, and Dorf, Mr. Tushnet, and other analysts stress there is plenty of time for the justices to agree to hear additional cases, including several pending appeals that could become vehicles for major decisions. They include a Wisconsin voucher program that permits the use of public funds to pay parochial-school tuition for low-income children, state bans on late-term abortions, and the regulation of tobacco by the Food and Drug Administration. Also, a Cincinnati campaign- finance-law appeal would provide an opportunity to revisit the landmark 1976 decision Buckley v. Valeo, the primary reform law, which critics say has made it all but impossible to pass meaningful campaign-finance restrictions. In addition, there are appeals involving affirmative action, gay rights, habeas corpus restrictions, and prison litigation reform. "There are so many cases crying out for interpretation," says Ira Robbins, a law professor at American University's Washington College of Law. "It is necessary to give guidance not only to litigants and lawyers but to the lower federal courts." He says he is particularly troubled by the Supreme Court's refusal so far to clarify recent laws aimed at restricting habeas corpus petitions, requests from someone in custody for intervention by a court. "If Congress intended to get habeas cases and death penalty cases speeded up, the Supreme Court may be thwarting that purpose by not giving us national interpretations of key provisions," he says. Ironically, the one constitutional issue currently on everyone's mind in Washington - impeachment - is completely out of the hands of the Supreme Court. The key question of what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors," and whether President Clinton violated any of them, is up to Congress, not the justices of the Supreme Court. …