WASHINGTON, Feb. 22, 2011 -- The Supreme Court returns to the bench today after its winter recess to begin the second half of a term that has featured lively oral arguments in cases ranging from protests at military funerals to prison overcrowding in California and tough immigration laws in Arizona.
The dynamics of the bench are different this year because the Justices are asking the lawyers so many more questions. Sometimes Chief Justice John Roberts has to stop the justices from interrupting each other. There is one glaring exception: Justice Clarence Thomas hasn't asked a question in about five years.
Here's a look at nine high-profile cases that have been heard but not yet decided:
Protests at military funerals The Court will decide whether members of the Westboro Baptist Church have a free speech right to protest at the funerals of fallen service members. The case was brought by Albert Snyder who sued the church after its members picketed the funeral of his son, Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder who died in Iraq. The church is composed mostly of members of the Phelps family who travel the country and protest at funerals, in part because they believe that soldiers are dying in part, because homosexuals are allowed to serve in the military. Snyder was not a homosexual. A lower court found that the church members' conduct was protected by the first amendment.
Death penalty & DNA Henry Skinner was convicted of killing his girlfriend and her two adult sons in 1995 and sentenced to death. But within a few hours of his execution the Supreme Court stepped in and agreed to hear his appeal. Skinner argues that he should be able to test DNA material found at the crime scene. He is asking the Supreme Court to decide the narrow issue of whether he can bring his claim under the Civil Rights Act. If Skinner wins it could open up a new legal avenue for those on death row challenging their sentences.
Arizona school tax credits At issue is an Arizona law that allows state residents to receive a tax credit for contributions to non-profit organizations that in turn give scholarships to public school students who want to attend private schools. The law has come under intense criticism by some Arizona taxpayers who say the law unconstitutionally funnels state money to religious schools.
Prison overcrowding The state of California is arguing that a federal court order mandating the state to reduce the prison population by 40,000 over two years is too drastic, and will endanger public safety. The case stems from two lawsuits that have been wending their way through the courts for years, challenging the health care available in the overcrowded prison system.
Arizona immigration law The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and immigration groups have come together to challenge the constitutionality of the Legal Arizona Worker's Act that severely sanctions employers for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. The case is being carefully watched as a possible precursor for another controversial Arizona law requiring police to ask for papers from those they believe might be in the country illegally. Here are some interesting upcoming arguments:
Walmart The Court will decide whether to allow one of the largest class action suits in history to go forward against Walmart. The case started out as a challenge filed by six women who worked in 13 stores, who alleged they had been paid less than men in comparable positions despite having higher performance ratings. Women from across the country seek to join the suit.
Supreme Court Deliberates
Material witness statute Nearly eight years ago Abdullah Al-Kidd, an American citizen and former football player at the University of Idaho, was arrested by the FBI and held for 15 days because of his connections to a suspected terrorist. Al-Kidd was never charged with a crime and is now seeking to sue former Attorney General John Ashcroft arguing that he was improperly detained. The U.S. government, representing Ashcroft, argues that Ashcroft should receive immunity from such suits.
Campaign finance In its first campaign finance case since Citizen's United, the court will review an Arizona public financing law. A provision of the state's Clean Elections Act gives public money to candidates who choose to forgo private fundraising. Supporters of campaign finance reform believe such laws could ultimately reduce election spending . But private groups say the law squelches the 1st Amendment rights of organizations seeking to have their message heard.
Child abuse The Court will decide whether police and social workers must obtain a warrant before interviewing a child in public school about suspected sexual assault in the home. A lower court concluded that such an interview in Oregon was unconstitutional because the officials failed to obtain a warrant based on probable cause. Child protective agencies say obtaining a warrant is often impossible when the suspected abuser is a parent.