Supreme Court Returns Today With Gay Marriage, Affirmative Action, Voting Rights in View

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The Supreme Court is poised to take the bench today and begin the second half of a term laced with hot button issues such as affirmative action, gay marriage, voting rights and government secrecy.

The justices will hear two potentially blockbuster cases in March concerning gay marriage. One of the cases - Hollingsworth v. Perry - addresses whether there is a fundamental right to same-sex marriage. The other - Windsor v. United States - deals with the federal law that defines marriage as between a man and a woman.

In both cases, the court will hear arguments on potential procedural obstacles that could stop it from getting to the core constitutional questions.

The court will also hear a case challenging a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 of the law says that certain states with a history of voter discrimination must clear any changes to their election laws with federal officials in Washington. Lawyers for Shelby County, Ala., are challenging the constitutionality of Section 5. The case, called Shelby County v. Holder, will be argued Feb. 27.

The day before, the court will hear arguments in Maryland v. King, a case about whether Maryland officials can collect DNA from someone who has been arrested but not convicted of a crime.

The justices are already working behind the scenes writing and reviewing draft opinions for cases they heard this fall.

Fisher v. University of Texas is a case that could further limit the use of race-conscious admissions policies at public universities. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who sued the University in 2008, claiming she had been denied admission based on her race. Justice Elena Kagan is recused from this case, presumably because she dealt with it in her previous job as solicitor general.

They are also considering a case closely watched by human rights groups and big business that addresses whether corporations can be held liable for alleged violations of international law under a federal law called the Alien Tort Statute. At oral arguments, a skeptical Justice Samuel Alito questioned why the case was in the U.S. courts in the first place.

"Why does this case belong in the courts of the United States when it has nothing to do with the United States other than the fact that a subsidiary of the defendant has a big operation here?"

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., as well as a case that considers whether the sniff of a police dog on the front porch of a person's home constitutes a search and requires a warrant.

Off the bench, all eyes will be on Chief Justice John Roberts when he administers the oath of office to President Obama. The Presidential Inaugural Committee announced last week that the president will be officially sworn in Jan. 20, which falls on a Sunday, and then again on Monday, Jan. 21, for a ceremonial swearing in.

Roberts slightly flubbed the oath in 2009 and had to re-administer it at the White House.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor will swear in Vice President Biden. She becomes the first Hispanic to administer an inaugural oath. In a statement, the vice president said that "one of the greatest pleasures of my career" was to be involved in Sotomayor's selection to the court.

"From the first time I met her, I was impressed by Justice Sotomayor's commitment to justice and opportunity for all Americans, and she continues to exemplify those values today," he said.

In the coming weeks, Sotomayor will also launch a book tour for her memoir, "My Beloved World." The Associated Press, which received an early copy, reported in December that the justice discusses her lifelong battle with diabetes, her upbringing in the South Bronx, as well as a defense of affirmative action.