If the US Supreme Court were a grocery store, the justices would
be starting their 2004-05 term Monday with an announcement: "Cleanup
in Aisle 3."
On the first day of the term, the justices are set to confront
the messy implications of a landmark 5-to-4 decision handed down in
late June. The ruling has placed in doubt the constitutionality of
the federal sentencing guidelines - potentially undermining tens of
thousands of criminal sentences and spawning a tidal wave of
litigation that could clog the courts for years.
In what promises to be another important and surprising year at
the nation's highest court, the justices will also take up cases
involving the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty, the
clash of federal and state laws over use of medical marijuana, and
state efforts to regulate the interstate sale of wine.
The current roster of justices has served together for 10 years,
longer than any other group of justices since the 1820s. Interest in
a possible retirement is always high during a presidential election
year, but many court watchers say they see no indication of a desire
or need by any of the justices to step down.
While last year's term produced historic decisions defining
presidential power during wartime and upholding the rights of
detainees, the 2004-05 term could also make history - in a way that
has many legal analysts on edge.
The new term marks the first time the justices will be sitting
during a presidential election since the controversial Bush v. Gore
decision four years ago. With battalions of Republican and Democrat
lawyers poised to challenge even the smallest issue related to
balloting, the court may again be invited to grapple with the
implications of the growing litigiousness of US elections.
Will judges - and Supreme Court justices - respond in ways that
allow elections to be decided the old-fashioned way, by voters? Or
will politically connected judges allow politically connected
lawyers to game the election system in ways that favor one political
party or candidate?
The high court declined this week to enter the election fray
concerning attempts by presidential candidate Ralph Nader to gain
access to the ballot in Oregon. Lawyers working on behalf of John
Kerry have been seeking to exclude Mr. Nader from various state
ballots on the theory that a Nader candidacy might drain support
that would otherwise go to Mr. Kerry.
Prof. Jeffrey Rosen of George Washington University Law School
told a recent conference at the Cato Institute in Washington that
the stage has been set for an explosion of election-related
lawsuits. "We might see weeks of uncertainty by this legalization of
politics," Mr. Rosen says.
Overall, the Supreme Court receives 9,000 appeals each year. The
justices agree to hear only about 80 of them. More than half of the
calendar has been filled, and the rest of the cases will be selected
in the weeks ahead.
Argument sessions are set for two-week periods each month through
April. Decisions are handed down throughout the year, with the most
contentious and important often coming at term's end in June.
One exception will probably be the sentencing-guidelines case.
Recognizing the turmoil in the federal courts caused by their
decision in Blakely v. Washington last June, the court agreed to
hear two cases (US v. …