Supreme Court Will Put Focus on Federalism: Just 43 Cases on Docket as Term Begins

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court's 1999-2000 term opens at 10 a.m. today with a scant calendar of 43 cases that may spur more public and legal interest than last year's docket of 75.

By January, justices likely will accept another 30 or so appeals for review but they will open this "first Monday in October" session by announcing refusal to hear almost 1,900 petitions considered over the summer.

The term's dominant theme promises to be federalism - protection for the states from domination by Washington under the 10th and 11th amendments - building on last term's trend of 5-4 decisions returning power to states.

This time eight cases raise federalism issues as far afield as whether states should retain the role of punishing sex-related violence, have the prerogative to limit political contributions, should be allowed to market motor vehicle data, may ignore federal discrimination laws on age and disability, and can set standards for motor vehicle safety and shipping crews.

Other disputes involve racial barriers to the ballot box (including racial-classification restricting voters in certain elections to Hawaii's aboriginal residents), lending government-owned computers to religious-based private schools, Food and Drug Administration efforts to regulate tobacco, grandparents' rights to visit grandchildren over parental objection, access for anti-abortion protesters and the extent to which the Constitution shields nude dancing in bars or steamy programming on cable television.

"Yogi Berra said it was `deja vu all over again.' He may have said that about this term's docket," said Theodore Olson, a Washington constitutional lawyer who said many lawyers believe the core issues in most of those cases already were decided.

Most of this agenda induced pessimism among American Civil Liberties attorneys, who predict the term also may undermine Miranda rights for suspects and curb prisoner access to federal courts.

"If the 4th Circuit is upheld, death-row prisoners will be going to execution chambers on greased skids," said Vivian Berger of Columbia Law School, who lambasted the appeals court's recent decision in a death penalty case that would nullify most habeas corpus petitions claiming constitutional violations in arrest, trial or punishment.

The ruling prescribed that a state court must not only be wrong, but be so egregiously wrong that "reasonable jurists would all agree [it] is unreasonable," which she said is a nearly impossible hurdle.

The 15th Amendment's guarantee that voting rights not hinge on race will be at issue when Mr. Olson argues Wednesday for rancher Harold F. Rice's claim to vote in all Hawaiian elections, even though his ancestors were Europeans who sat in the Hawaii legislature in the 19th century. State law defines "native Hawaiians" as those whose ancestors lived in the islands before Europeans arrived in 1778.

Mr. Olson said that giving "native Hawaiians" or any other racial group the sole right to vote for trustees who administer a fund for Hawaiians threatens the principle "that government-sponsored racial discrimination will not be tolerated in American society."

Many analysts predict the political contribution case set for argument tomorrow would end all donor limits under the 1976 "Buckley vs. Valeo" decision if the justices uphold a ruling that Missouri cannot limit candidate contributions to $1,075. Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon appealed the victory of a political action committee called Shrink Missouri Government.

"Campaign finance laws . . . violate the First Amendment guarantee of political speech recognized and enforced by this court," McLean lawyer William J. Olson said in a brief for a coalition of groups that say their concern is correct constitutional analysis. …