Supreme Court Term to Focus on Fourth Amendment

Article excerpt

The Supreme Court opens its 2000-2001 term today with a low-profile agenda lacking the drama of the past five years, when justices declared 26 acts of Congress unconstitutional and ruled on such divisive social issues as partial-birth abortion, public prayer and assisted suicide.

Many cases among the 46 appeals already accepted for full review focus on local government powers, with Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure law the most recurrent theme. Those cases involve police matters that affect ordinary people, including:

* Handcuffing and arresting Texas mother Gail Atwater for a seat-belt violation punishable by a maximum $50 fine, leaving her 4-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter in the care of a passer-by. * Using high-tech military "thermal imaging" devices to detect a home marijuana farm cultivated under hot lights.

* Giving police a city hospital's warrantless urinalyses of pregnant women who test positive for cocaine, under a law intended to protect fetal development.

* Letting police dogs sniff for narcotics around cars stopped for document checks at Indianapolis roadblocks.

* Police refusing to let an Illinois man enter his trailer home in an effort to prevent him from tampering with possible evidence inside before officers could obtain a search warrant.

The U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against authorities in the Indiana and Illinois cases, calling the use of police dogs a wholesale invasion of privacy. Federal appeals courts in three other circuits ruled that police acted properly in the seat-belt, thermal-imaging and cocaine-mom cases.

Justices hear arguments in the police-dog case tomorrow at 10 a.m., and the cocaine-mom case at the same time on Wednesday.

"In both of those cases, the test may come down to whether the purpose of the program was reasonable," said Washington lawyer Theodore Olson during his annual analysis of the docket for reporters.

The American Civil Liberties Union pointedly opposes the official viewpoint in all five search-and-seizure cases, including referring positive cocaine tests to the police.

"The implicit assumption in the 4th Circuit opinion that women have a diminished expectation of privacy solely because of their pregnancy is precisely the sort of paternalistic stereotype that the Supreme Court has long since rejected," said Steven Shapiro, the ACLU's national litigation director.

Among other issues on which the ACLU took sides is the First Amendment right involved in banning disclosure to news media of material obtained by eavesdropping on a cell-phone conversation. The case being heard by the court involves a Pennsylvania radio talk-show host's use of tapes discussing a union battle, but the decision will govern a separate appeal stemming from a December 1996 Republican leadership conference call about the House Ethics Committee probe of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

The term's overall headline quotient was dimmed considerably by last week's decision to put off the Microsoft antitrust case until an appeals court can review it. This morning, a court order will be issued denying most of the 1,748 other appeals considered at a Sept. 25 conference.

Among those appeals is a challenge by 31 House members to President Clinton's constitutional authority to order U.S. forces into air-combat operations with NATO troops in Kosovo. The constitutional background of that case involves issues left unchallenged when President Harry S. Truman sent U.S. troops to fight under the U.N. flag in Korea.

A major dispute about restrictions that Congress placed on Legal Services Corp. lawyers is set for argument at 11 a.m. Wednesday, pitting the controversial LSC against Congress in a case brought in the name of Carmen Velazquez, 56, a grandmother who was represented by a lawyer in a Bronx legal-aid program receiving LSC funds. …