Race Is Key Issue of '97 Term High Court Opens Today with a Light Caseload Marked by an Affirmative-Action Case. Series: Bench Marks: The Dockets. Second of Two Parts

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In early October, the ritual is for Supreme Court watchers to wail about a dearth of major cases. Yet by June, as the rulings come down, that view invariably changes: The term appears significant in ways no one predicted.

This year, however, the prognosticators of a ho-hum year at the high court may be right.

With the exception of a major affirmative-action case out of New Jersey, no great constitutional struggles are brewing. There are no life-and-death cases this term, and no blockbuster "states' rights" cases. Instead, the justices are occupied with technical problems of statutory interpretation, jurisdiction, and legal procedure. It looks, in short, like a term only a lawyer could love. "The court was incredibly exhausted at the end of last year, having decided 10 of the toughest cases in some time," says David O'Brien, author of an annual Supreme Court review. "This term will be low key; they want a breather." Moreover, the justices themselves have hinted that perhaps a slower year is in order. Thomas Goldstein, a Washington attorney who tracks the high court, notes that the court took a year to recover after its hard-fought 5-to-4 ruling to uphold abortion in June 1990. Still, one dispute perking interest concerns same-sex harassment. The case stems from a gay man who worked as an oil-rig roustabout and who quit his job after crude and sexually aggressive treatment by his co-workers. The question: Can the man sue under civil rights laws? This week brings an important free-speech case that could influence candidates' access to public TV. Last year, a federal court ruled that an Arkansas educational channel that sponsored a 1996 presidential forum was wrong to exclude GOP candidate Steve Forbes. The editorial staff decided Mr. Forbes was not at the time a realistic candidate; now the court may decide how much leeway a TV staff has to make that determination. This year also continues a trend of fewer cases. As of this writing, 58 cases are on the high court docket; 15 years ago it was not unusual for the court to have 80 on its first Monday. But the court may yet take additional cases. Petitions arrive year round - a record 8,100 of them last year. Customarily, the court stops accepting cases at the end of January and issues its decisions by the end of June. Though the term is light, the year could yet pack a punch in an often-explosive issue for American society: race. For one, the court may hand down a broad ruling against affirmative action in a teacher-layoff case from Piscataway, N.J. The justices also will decide whether to take a case challenging California's Proposition 209, a popular referendum that ended race preferences in admissions to colleges, state contracting, and state jobs. Recent high-court rulings on race come amid a national rethinking on the issue - stirred in part by previous court rulings. …