- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 31, 2004


Sometimes the work of the Supreme Court befits the court’s image as a stolid place. Quiet, plodding, even boring. But not this year.

With the justices on their midwinter break and about half the term behind them, they already have signed off on a vast rewrite of the laws that govern money in politics. They surprised even close observers of the court by jumping headlong into disputes over the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and how post September 11-America deals with terrorism and security.

There are cases testing the limits of presidential secrecy and of civil rights protections for the disabled. One upcoming case revisits the tricky balance between free speech and the need to protect children from Internet smut.

Another case looks at patient rights to sue their health maintenance organizations. Cases now awaiting rulings include a church-state fight over scholarships for religious education, a look at the role of partisan politics in legislative redistricting and a privacy case about photos of the late Vince Foster, a former Clinton White House aide.

“There’s something for everybody in the term,” Pepperdine University constitutional law professor Douglas Kmiec said. “There are cases that are topical around the water cooler and there are cases that are significant in law school classrooms and everywhere in between.”

The pledge case has grabbed the biggest headlines so far. Oral arguments are at the end of March.

A California atheist is challenging the constitutionality of the words “under God” that is part of the oath recited by generations of schoolchildren.

After batting away several cases that arose from the fight against terrorism, the court recently agreed to hear two major challenges to the Bush administration’s treatment of terrorism suspects. The court seems poised to add even a third terrorism case to its docket this spring, with rulings expected by July.

Still, it does not seem that the justices are grasping for every juicy case that comes their way, said Washington lawyer Mark Stancil, a former law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

“I don’t think the court is reaching out to decide these issues. These are important issues at the forefront of public life and at the forefront of the law. It’s always been the court’s role to decide those questions, and the court doesn’t shy away from that responsibility,” Mr. Stancil said.

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