Supreme Court Returns to Issues Close to Home

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank J. Murray

The Supreme Court returns today to a docket of cases worlds removed from the new national concerns about thwarting terrorism.

While the president and Congress prepare for a prolonged struggle that already is raising civil liberties questions, justices remain in a time warp of conventional appeals that could make the 2001-02 term the year of the child.

Cases already before the court deal with the constitutionality of school vouchers for thousands of children, protection of children from harmful Internet images and sexual predators, student privacy during the grading of papers, and mandatory drug testing for participants in high school choir, band and other "competitive" extracurricular activities.

Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, believes it is lucky that the court is not presently considering the types of immigration and national security cases raised by the Sept. 11 terror attacks or the hunt for co-conspirators.

Mr. Shapiro said the ACLU does not represent any of the persons swept up on immigration charges or as witnesses, nor has it been asked to do so.

"Future cases on encryption, search and seizure, and profiling of suspects may touch more closely to where the raw nerve is," he said, predicting more inflamed rhetoric.

While Fourth Amendment search-and-seizure appeals dominated last term, the current menu of cases involves children, the death penalty, HMO disputes, affirmative action, public housing issues, landowner property rights and one more round of the Microsoft case.

The high court so far has accepted 49 appeals, with decisions expected by June. That is three more than were accepted at this point last year.

Today's first order of business will be disposition of more than a thousand requests to be placed on that roster, all of which were considered during summer recess.

First up for argument today is a controversy involving a federal prisoner's right to sue a private company for its conduct while under contract to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Correctional Services Corp., which operates private prisons, claims it should enjoy the same immunity to lawsuits while acting for the federal government as the law provides to the government itself.

While serving an 18-month sentence for securities fraud in a New York halfway house, John Malesko says, he had a heart attack because a CSC guard made him walk up five stories instead of letting him use the elevator.

Most of the cases with the broadest public interest will be argued later in the term, so early attention will involve efforts to get cases accepted for full review.

One of the more interesting is the school drug case from Pottawatomie County, Okla. …