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Supremes Court Controversy

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Resuming work after the historic decisions that ended its previous term, the U.S. Supreme Court opens its new session this week with a docket full of controversy.

After its landmark decisions on affirmative action and sodomy last June, the court will be asked to decide issues of campaign finance, religion in schools, congressional redistricting, states' rights and police powers.

The term that begins this week also will bring a return to a topic the justices themselves find uncomfortable — the possibility one or more will pick this year to quit. The New York Times reports the current court has not changed in ten years — the longest run since a 12-year period between 1811 and 1823.

According to The Times, the justices already have 48 cases on their agenda, enough to carry them through February. The court's schedule can accommodate around 30 additional cases; as the term goes on, the justices will screen the hundreds of appeals they receive for other case to hear this term.

The justices will hear a case that asks whether states can withhold scholarships from students pursuing religious training.

Last year, the court ruled that federal law did not prohibit the use of public money for vouchers that pay tuition at religious schools. But the current case asks whether states are required to provide that sort of funding. The policy in question is Washington State's refusal to provide tuition assistance to students majoring in theology at religious colleges.

According to The Times, the justices will also decide whether a state can be sued under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Plaintiffs in the case say their use of courthouses has been restricted because states did not comply with the law — one man had to crawl up the courthouse steps to make a court appearance. States claim they are immune from the lawsuits.

Justices will weigh in on police search and seizure practices involving cars and whether cops can use statements made before Miranda warnings to extract confessions or evidence uncovered as a result of Miranda violations in court.

Also on the docket, according to The Times, is an enormously complicated case that asks whether new regulations limiting some campaign donations and political advertising violate free speech guarantees.

There is also a case about the effects of gerrymandering — brass-knuckle politics as practiced by legislators who draw congressional districts. The question there is when courts can intervene in a redistricting dispute.

The campaign finance case probably is giving the justices fits. They held an unusual, one-day session last month to get a head start on it. Many lawyers predict that as hard as they try, the justices will produce a hash of overlapping opinions that redirect the way money flows in campaigns without reducing it.

"I think the court will not give us a clear and neat answer," said Erik S. Jaffe, a First Amendment lawyer and former law clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas.

"The court is always on dangerous ground when it ventures into politics," said Walter Dellinger, a Washington lawyer and former acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration. "The court never knows where it makes things better or worse."

The court will also have to decide whether to accept cases like the Bush administration appeal of the lower court ruling that the "under God" passage in the Pledge of Allegiance is unconstitutional. Appeals involving detention policies in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks are also expected.

In its most recent term, which ended in June, the court struggled with culturally divisive questions of race and homosexuality. The ordinarily conservative court ended up preserving affirmative action in college admissions and striking down laws criminalizing gay sex.

The court will observe its tradition of convening the new term on the first Monday in October, but with a twist. For the first time, the court announced it will not hold oral arguments on opening day because the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur falls on that day.

Two of the nine justices are Jewish: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.