October 2, 2005

Supreme court to open term with new chief justice

By James Vicini

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The John Roberts era at the Supreme
Court begins on Monday, when the youngest U.S. chief justice in
200 years presides in a term that will include cases on
contentious issues such as abortion, assisted suicide and
financing of political campaigns.

As the 17th U.S. chief justice, the 50-year-old Roberts
succeeds fellow conservative William Rehnquist, 80, who died a
month ago, in a lifetime job that positions him to help shape
the American way of life for decades.

After confirmation hearings in which Democrats complained
that Roberts shed little light on his views on critical
constitutional questions, the high court's decisions this term
will be scrutinized more closely than usual to determine
whether they foreshadow a shift in direction.

"This is a docket that already has an extraordinary number
of potential blockbuster cases," Duke University law professor
Erwin Chemerinsky said. "It will give us an early sense of who
John Roberts is."

The high court is due to experience even more change after
a rare 11-year period of stability. U.S. President George W.
Bush is expected to announce soon his nominee to replace
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate conservative who often
casts the swing vote on the divided court.

The U.S. Senate must approve the nomination, which could
take months. O'Connor has agreed to stay until her successor,
who could swing the court to the right, is confirmed.

The justices will hear arguments on Wednesday on whether
the Bush administration can stop Oregon doctors from helping
terminally ill patients commit suicide, despite a state law
allowing such assistance.

In November, the court considers abortion-related cases.

One involves a 19-year-old federal racketeering lawsuit
saying two anti-abortion groups engaged in a nationwide
conspiracy to shut down health clinics. The other concerns a
New Hampshire law requiring parental notice before a minor can
get an abortion.


The Bush administration also recently filed an appeal
urging the Supreme Court to uphold as constitutional a federal
law that bans a late-term abortion procedure.

"Abortion will definitely be on the front burner of the
Supreme Court for the first time in many years," said
Washington lawyer Tom Goldstein, who closely follows the court.

Roberts' views on campaign finance could also become
clearer this term, he said. The court said on September 27 that
it would decide a pair of cases involving state and federal
campaign finance laws, including strict limits on political
contributions and spending.

Chemerinsky and the other experts predicted there would not
be much difference between Roberts and Rehnquist, who share the
same conservative judicial philosophy.

The greater shift in the court's balance of power could
come if O'Connor's replacement pushes the court further to the
right, they said.

Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil
Liberties Union, said the new term would begin with a great
sense of anticipation and uncertainty.

"The appointment of a new chief justice carries special
significance because of the chief's unique role," he said.
"Justice O'Connor's retirement creates a different void by
removing a critical swing vote on a series of issues ranging
from race to religion."

The court's most conservative members are Justices Antonin
Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Justice Anthony Kennedy, a moderate
conservative, often joins O'Connor in casting deciding votes.

The most liberal members are Justices John Paul Stevens,
David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.

Other high-profile cases to be decided this term include
whether hallucinogenic tea can be imported into the country for
use as a sacrament and whether federal funds can be denied to
universities that keep military recruiters off their campuses
to protest the Pentagon's policy against gays and lesbians.

The court also will decide whether defendants facing the
death penalty have a constitutional right to offer evidence at
their sentencing hearing that casts doubt on their guilt and a
Tennessee death row inmate's appeal based on DNA evidence that
was unavailable at the time of his murder conviction.

In a case not as important as some of the others on the
docket, but one that undoubtedly will be widely publicized, the
court will hear former topless dancer and Playboy model Anna
Nicole Smith's who is involved in a long legal battle to
collect millions from the estate of her elderly oil tycoon