The justices will deliberate this term on a number of high-
profile cases that could set new precedents in divisive
constitutional issues like race, abortion and the role of money in
After back-to-back terms ending in historic rulings that riveted
the United States, the Supreme Court might have been expected to
return to its usual diet of routine cases that rarely engage the
Instead, the court's new term, which starts Monday, will feature
an extraordinary series of cases on consequential constitutional
issues, including campaign contributions, abortion rights,
affirmative action, public prayer and presidential power.
"This term is deeper in important cases than either of the prior
two terms," said Irving L. Gornstein, the executive director of the
Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University.
An unusually large number of the new cases put important
precedents at risk, many in areas of the law the court has been
rapidly revising since the retirement of Justice Sandra Day
O'Connor. She was at the court's ideological center, and her
moderate instincts played a crucial role in shaping the court's
jurisprudence on abortion, race, religion and the role of money in
Justice O'Connor was succeeded in 2006 by the more conservative
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., and the impact of that switch is likely
to be felt in new cases in all four of those areas, with the court
revisiting and perhaps replacing precedents from earlier courts.
In the last term, the court grappled with the nature of equality -
- in college admissions, in the voting booth and at the altar. The
new term will include a run of cases on the structure of the
political process, including ones on the balance of power between
the branches of government and the role of money in politics.
One case, National Labor Relations Board v. Noel Canning, No. 12-
1281, is a test of President Obama's ability to bypass the Senate by
making recess appointments. It has partisan overtones reminiscent of
the clash over the constitutionality of his health care law.
"Canning seems to me the most important case on the court's
docket to date," said Gregory G. Garre, a lawyer with Latham &
Watkins who served as solicitor general in the administration of
President George W. Bush. "Once again, the court and the president
seem destined to face off, with potentially huge stakes for both
A second case continues a signature project of the court, led by
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., which has been subjecting
campaign finance laws to skeptical scrutiny in a half-dozen
decisions, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission,
which in 2010 freed corporations and unions to spend without limit
in candidate elections. The new case moves the court's focus from
such independent spending to caps on direct contributions from
individuals to candidates and political parties.
That case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, No. 12-
536, may imperil a foundational 1976 campaign finance precedent,
Buckley v. Valeo.
The Buckley decision is not the only major precedent at risk this
term. The court has been asked to overrule an unusually large number
of major decisions, including ones on free speech, religious liberty
and property rights.
The court has two cases concerning abortion on its docket. One of
them, McCullen v. Coakley, No. 12-1168, is a challenge to a
Massachusetts law that restricted protests near reproductive health
care facilities. The court upheld a similar Colorado law in 2000 in
Hill v. Colorado.
"This is probably the most likely precedent to be overruled,"
said Kannon K. Shanmugam, a lawyer with Williams & Connolly.
The second one concerns whether states may limit the use of
abortion-inducing drugs. The case, Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for
Reproductive Justice, No. 12-1094, has taken a detour to the
Oklahoma Supreme Court, which has been asked for a clarification. …