Ahead at Supreme Court: Big Cases, No Blockbusters

Article excerpt

The new term at the US Supreme Court is a little like a vegetarian buffet, plenty of interesting items but nothing really meaty. At least not yet. A legal dispute over religious monuments in public parks, whether senior US officials can be sued for alleged detainee abuses in the war on terror, and what to do about foul language blurted out during live television broadcasts are among the issues facing the justices as they prepare to begin their 2008-09 term on Monday. They are set to take up a dispute between the US Navy and environmentalists in California over the dangerous effects of sonar on whales. They will consider two cases examining whether tobacco and drug companies regulated by federal agencies are shielded from lawsuits filed by injured residents in Maine and Vermont. And they will decide if senior management can fire employees in retaliation for accusing a senior manager of sexual harassment. Court scholars are watching closely to gauge the high court's predicted move to the right under Chief Justice John Roberts, while at the same time examining occasional lurches to the left at the behest of centrist swing voter Justice Anthony Kennedy. While this lineup of cases highlights many interesting issues, legal analysts say that the court's docket does not yet include a case of blockbuster status like last term's battle over Second Amendment gun rights or the extension of constitutional rights to terror suspects at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, prison camp. There are potential blockbuster cases looming on the horizon, however. They include appeals testing the scope of presidential power in the war on terror and a challenge to the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act. Lawyers for alleged Al Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh al-Marri are asking the Supreme Court to examine President Bush's claim of power to hold legal residents (and US citizens) in indefinite military detention within the US without criminal charge or trial. "There is really no limit as to who can be subject to military detention in the United States," says Mr. Marri's lawyer, Jonathan Hafetz of the American Civil Liberties Union. "There is no limiting principle." In a major voting rights case, a municipal utility district in Austin, Texas, is challenging its inclusion on a list of suspect discriminatory jurisdictions under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). Lawyers for the district are urging the high court to exempt it from VRA restrictions since there is no history of voter discrimination within the utility district. Failing that, the lawyers are asking the high court to declare that Congress exceeded its authority in reauthorizing the VRA two years ago. The most important long-term development at the US Supreme Court this year may not even take place at the court. It could happen Nov. 4 with the election of the next president. Legal analysts predict there could be from one to three retirements from the court during the next four years. …