In early October, the ritual is for Supreme Court watchers to
wail about a dearth of major cases. Yet by June, as the rulings
come down, that view invariably changes: The term appears
significant in ways no one predicted.
This year, however, the prognosticators of a ho-hum year at
the high court may be right.
With the exception of a major affirmative-action case out of
New Jersey, no great constitutional struggles are brewing. There
are no life-and-death cases this term, and no blockbuster "states'
rights" cases. Instead, the justices are occupied with technical
problems of statutory interpretation, jurisdiction, and legal
It looks, in short, like a term only a lawyer could love.
"The court was incredibly exhausted at the end of last year,
having decided 10 of the toughest cases in some time," says David
O'Brien, author of an annual Supreme Court review. "This term will
be low key; they want a breather."
Moreover, the justices themselves have hinted that perhaps a
slower year is in order. Thomas Goldstein, a Washington attorney
who tracks the high court, notes that the court took a year to
recover after its hard-fought 5-to-4 ruling to uphold abortion in
Still, one dispute perking interest concerns same-sex
harassment. The case stems from a gay man who worked as an oil-rig
roustabout and who quit his job after crude and sexually aggressive
treatment by his co-workers. The question: Can the man sue under
civil rights laws?
This week brings an important free-speech case that could
influence candidates' access to public TV. Last year, a federal
court ruled that an Arkansas educational channel that sponsored a
1996 presidential forum was wrong to exclude GOP candidate Steve
Forbes. The editorial staff decided Mr. Forbes was not at the time
a realistic candidate; now the court may decide how much leeway a
TV staff has to make that determination.
This year also continues a trend of fewer cases. As of this
writing, 58 cases are on the high court docket; 15 years ago it was
not unusual for the court to have 80 on its first Monday.
But the court may yet take additional cases. Petitions arrive
year round - a record 8,100 of them last year. Customarily, the
court stops accepting cases at the end of January and issues its
decisions by the end of June.
Though the term is light, the year could yet pack a punch in
an often-explosive issue for American society: race.
For one, the court may hand down a broad ruling against
affirmative action in a teacher-layoff case from Piscataway, N.J.
The justices also will decide whether to take a case challenging
California's Proposition 209, a popular referendum that ended race
preferences in admissions to colleges, state contracting, and state
Recent high-court rulings on race come amid a national
rethinking on the issue - stirred in part by previous court