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.Play

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.

The U.S. Park Service has been forced to cover a 5-foot cross that had been standing in one form or another in the Mojave National Preserve in California for 70 years as a monument to fallen soldiers during World War I.

In 2003, a federal court ruled that the cross, because it stood on public land, violated the Constitution's ban on a government preference for one religion over another.

Congress attempted to remedy the situation by transferring the land to private ownership. Now, the court will explore whether Congress's action solved the constitutional violation even though the monument is still considered a national memorial. The court will also consider whether the man behind the suit, a retired Park Service employee, has the right -- in legalese called "standing" -- to bring the suit.

Life Sentence for Juveniles

Four years after finding it unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on juveniles, the Supreme Court will hear arguments concerning whether a minor can receive a sentence of life without parole.

At issue are the cases of Terrance Jamar Graham and Joe Harris Sullivan. At 16 years old, Graham was sentenced to life after violating probation for a 2003 armed robbery attempt. Sullivan was convicted of raping and robbing a 72-year-old woman when he was 13. Because the cases have varying circumstances, the court could rule in a way that would result in separate outcomes.

Right to Bear Arms

This week the court announced it would hear a case that could overturn state and local gun laws across the country. Chicago residents are challenging the constitutionality of the city's handgun laws. The court ruled in June 2008 in favor of the right of an individual to bear arms but left open the question of how that would apply to state laws.

Antitrust Law

For 20 years, a small family-owned hatmaker sold stocking caps with a National Football League logo. Then, the NFL decided all its licensing for head gear would go to sports giant Reebok.

The hatmaker sued, and the court will now decide whether the NFL can be considered a "single entity" immune from anti-trust lawsuits. A broad ruling for the NFL could mean major changes in the contracting of franchises, television restrictions, salary caps and player drafts.

Other interesting cases on the docket include issues relating to ineffective legal counsel, property rights, separation of powers, Miranda warnings and patent law.

Possible Cert Grants

Throughout the first half of the term, the justices will continue to add cases.

One case under the court's consideration involves an appeal by the Obama administration regarding the government's decision to withhold possibly hundreds of pictures of prisoner abuse by the Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency as exceptions to the Freedom of Information Act.

Retirement Rumors

Again this term, the retirement rumors will continue to swirl as court watchers speculate on when Obama will get another chance to appoint a new justice.

Last week Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was treated in February for early stage pancreatic cancer, fell faint in her chambers and was later admitted for a night of observation at the Washington Hospital Center. Ginsburg, 76, who has said she plans to remain on the court for many years, returned to work the next day. A court spokeswoman released a statement saying that Ginsburg had received a clean bill of health last July except for an iron deficiency that caused the fainting spell.

Retirement speculation has also swirled around Justice John Paul Stevens who, at 89, is the oldest member of the high court. This December he will have served on the court for 34 years. Earlier this month, Stevens confirmed to the AP that he had only hired one clerk for the 2010 term instead of the usual complement of four. Justices who retire are allowed one clerk.

Former clerks for Stevens said that he usually hired his clerks "like clockwork," and that although he could presumably snap up talented clerks at a later date, the way he handled his hiring this time signaled he might step down at the end of this term. Were he to step down this year, Stevens would be slightly shy of breaking two major records on the court: the oldest-serving justice (Oliver Wendell Holmes retired at 90) and the longest-serving justice (William O. Douglas served for 36 years).

Former clerks said that Stevens is not the type to care about breaking records, however. The justice has given his blessing to a clerk reunion in May, and some believe it may be his last such reunion.