- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006


Before ending a historic term, the Supreme Court must resolve some potential blockbuster cases involving the president’s wartime powers, capital punishment and political boundaries in Texas.

Much attention this term has focused on the two newest members — Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — and on signs of a possible shift to the right on the nine-member court.

With a late June deadline looming, the high court has yet to issue opinions in about 35 cases in which justices have heard arguments. At this point a year ago, the court had the same number of cases pending, a sign the justices’ pace has changed little with the arrival of Chief Justice Roberts, who succeeded the late William H. Rehnquist as chief justice.

Some headline-grabbing cases are over: a test of Oregon’s physician-assisted suicide law, a constitutional challenge to state abortion restrictions and model-reality television star Anna Nicole Smith’s fight for a piece of her late husband’s estate.

Still to be decided are cases involving President Bush’s power to order military trials for suspected foreign terrorists held at the Navy prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and an appeal that will decide when death row inmates should get a new chance to prove their innocence with DNA and other evidence.

In addition, the justices are delving into politics. At issue in one case is whether the court should throw out all or part of a Texas congressional map promoted by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican. A free-speech case asks whether states can limit how much money is spent in political campaigns.

Much talk among court observers, however, concerns the justices’ personalities.

“The real mark of this term is not the issues,” said Richard Garnett, a Notre Dame law professor and former court clerk. “Apart from what happens in the big ticket cases in June, we have a new chief justice for the first time in nearly 20 years and the justices changed seats for the first time in a decade.”

Chief Justice Roberts, then 50, took the oath on the first day of the court’s term in October, becoming the youngest chief justice in two centuries. Chief Justice Rehnquist died in September at age 80.

In late January, Justice Alito won Senate confirmation to replace Sandra Day O’Connor after the failed nomination of White House counsel Harriet Miers. Justice Alito’s style is reserved, the opposite of Mrs. O’Connor, a moderate justice appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

Chief Justice Roberts is sidelined in what is considered the biggest case of the term — the military trials at Guantanamo Bay. He had served on an appeals court panel that backed the Bush administration in the case last year and has withdrawn from the appeal.

Justice Alito will not vote in cases that were argued before his arrival. Without former Justice O’Connor’s vote, justices apparently deadlocked in three cases, requiring rare re-arguments. The abortion case was decided before his confirmation, although Justice Alito will be a swing vote when a different abortion case is argued in the fall.

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