Supreme Court Begins New Term After Unusual Start

Chief Justice John Roberts opened court this morning saying he was honored to usher in a new Supreme Court term, a term that has had an unusual start.

In a rare circumstance, the justices met last month for a preterm argument regarding a potentially explosive campaign finance case.

The court sent out word Sunday that the term's official first case, the State of South Carolina v. the State of North Carolina (about water rights), had been postponed because of an emergency in the family of one of the lawyers.

And Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the most recent addition to the high court, has found that the media is interested in everything about her, including her wardrobe choices and her favorite restaurants.

Video of Sonia Sotomayor describing how she came to learn that she was goign to be nominated to the Supreme Court.
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Sotomayor, confirmed in August, has wasted no time getting ready for the term.

She has moved into chambers, hired her clerks and even danced the mambo with a Hollywood star. She confessed in her first TV interview that she held her "beating heart" to calm herself when President Obama offered her the job. She has even thrown out a pitch to her beloved Yankees.

She has had to face a dizzying array of briefs that piled up during the summer, and now must confront a full docket for the fall.

The docket includes a variety of cases, ranging from the implications of religious symbols on public property, a congressional statute banning the distribution of videos containing dog fighting, the constitutionality of life sentences for juveniles and whether the Second Amendment, declaring right to bear arms, applies to state laws.

Campaign Finance

On Sept. 9, the court came together for an unusual pre-term sitting to hear a case that could change forever the influx of corporate money into the election system. At issue is a 2008 documentary called "Hillary: the Movie" -- a critical look at Hillary Clinton when she was a candidate for president. Citizens United, the conservative nonprofit advocacy group that made the movie, decided to distribute it through a video-on-demand service accessible to cable subscribers.

The Federal Election Commission banned the release, ruling that the movie was an "electioneering communication," comparable to an ad attacking a candidate, and because it had been made with corporate funds was subject to restrictions imposed under the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The court is examining whether it should revisit two court precedents dealing with the regulation of corporate spending.

First Amendment

On Oct. 6, the justices will hear an important First Amendment case -- U.S. v. Stevens -- to determine where to draw the line between free speech and animal rights.

At issue is a 1999 federal law aimed at curtailing animal cruelty that bans the distribution of videos depicting dog fighting. Robert Stevens ran afoul of the law and was sentenced to 37 months after he distributed videos that contained images of pit bull fighting.

Stevens argued that he was opposed to dog fighting and was simply producing films to educate the public about the breed. His sentence and the law were later invalidated by a federal appeals court, which found that the distribution of the videos was speech protected by the First Amendment. The case has ignited debate about the restrictions the government can place on speech.

Another First Amendment case set to go before the court concerns the placement of a religious symbol on public land.

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