Supreme Court Faces Affirmative Action and Gay Marriage


Voting Rights

The court could also take on a case dealing with a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The disputed portion, called Section 5, says that certain states with a history of voter discrimination must clear any change to their election laws with federal officials in Washington.

There are nine states covered by the law, mostly in the South, and parts of seven more.

Lawyers for Shelby County, Alabama have filed one challenge arguing that "things have changed in the South" and Congress was wrong in 2006 to extend Section 5 for 25 more years. They say they are being unfairly blocked from passing some laws similar to those in other states not covered by the law.

Should the justices vote to take up the case and reexamine the Voting Rights Act, they would most likely do so after the election.

Liability for Human Rights Violations

The first argument the court hears on Monday morning concerns a case keenly watched by human rights groups, and corporations with subsidiaries abroad.

Last term the court heard arguments in Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum on the question of whether corporations could be held liable in U.S. courts for human rights violations allegedly committed abroad.

The case was brought by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs against a subsidiary of Shell Oil. The Nigerians are seeking to sue Shell for allegedly aiding and abetting human rights violations in Nigeria between 1992 and 1995.

But after arguments, the court took the unusual step of ordering re-arguments and adding an additional question: Whether a federal law called the Alien Tort Statute allows U.S. courts to hear cases of alleged human rights violations that occurred abroad.

Electronic Surveillance

Several human rights groups want to challenge the constitutionality of a 2008 federal statute that expanded the authority of federal officials to conduct secret electronic surveillance of foreign citizens who are in other countries.

The groups say their work requires them to engage in sensitive telephone and email communications with people outside the U.S. and they fear that their communications will be monitored. They say that they have had to take costly precautions to change the way they communicate with those who might be under government surveillance.

The federal government has responded that the human rights groups to do not have the "standing," or legal right, to bring the case. The government says that the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act do not allow the groups to be targeted by the government, and that the groups can't come to court and speculate about the possibility of some potential future injury. In court briefs, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli says the groups have not established that communications involving them have been or will ever be "incidentally collected."

Dog Sniff Case

Someday the court will be asked about the privacy implications of high-tech law enforcement surveillance. Not in this case. Instead, the justices will consider whether the sniff of a police dog on the front porch of a person's home constitutes a search and requires a warrant.

In December 2006, a Miami-Dade police detective brought Franky, a trained drug detection dog, to a suspected drug house. As the dog approached the door of the house, he began alerting his handler to the presence of drugs. Another detective knocked on the front door and smelled the scent of marijuana. The owner of the home, Joelis Jardines, was eventually arrested and charged with trafficking marijuana.

In court, Jardines moved to suppress the evidence seized, arguing that the dog sniff outside his house constituted an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment. While it is settled law that a dog sniff in a public place -- an airport or the street, for instance -- would not require a warrant, this case has to do with the proximity of the dog to Jardines' home.

Lawyers for Jardines say there is a greater expectation of privacy when it comes to the home and that "the use of a narcotics detection dog at the front door of a home reveals details inside a home" and constitutes a Fourth Amendment search.

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