The US Supreme Court returns to work Monday, completed by two judges appointed by President Barack Obama, facing a busy docket crammed with issues such as the death penalty and freedom of expression.
But despite Obama’s new appointments — Sonia Sotomayor who joined the bench at the start of the 2009 session and Elena Kagan who ceremonially took her seat for the first time on Friday — the make-up of the nation’s highest court is for many experts one of the most conservative ever.
The Associated Press notes, “During the new term, the court will look at provocative anti-gay protests at military funerals and a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. These cases worry free speech advocates, who fear the court could limit First Amendment freedoms.”
“The government’s relationship to religion” will be decided in an another upcoming case, the AP adds: “whether Arizona’s income tax credit scholarship program, in essence, directs state money to religious schools in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.”
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, marking his fifth anniversary on the court, and with the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor by Justice Samuel Alito, the court has been more sympathetic to arguments that blur the line between government and religion, as long as one religion is not favored over another.
Though it’s never certain how changes will affect the court’s direction, President Barack Obama said he was looking for someone in the mold of the liberal-leaning Stevens when he chose Kagan. If Kagan votes as Stevens did, her presence would not affect the ideological divide that has four justices on the conservative side, four on the liberal side and Kennedy in the middle, though more often with the conservatives.
The court, whose nine justice are appointed for life, rules on the most pressing moral and social issues facing the United States.
“Three of the most conservative justices in history are in the Court today,” said Susan Bloch, a professor at Georgetown University.
There were already some shock decisions in the last session: the lifting of complex finance laws to allow businesses to make unlimited electoral campaign donations; banning any moves to prohibit guns and overturning some of the legal arsenal used to fight corruption.
And there will be some thorny issues once again before the courts in the coming months.
There will be the case brought by Albert Snyder, incensed that anti-gay groups were allowed to demonstrate at the funeral of his son, Matthew, a lance corporal killed in Iraq in 2006.
Matthew was not gay, but members of the Westboro Baptist Church used the occasion to push their message against homosexuality.
Snyder is now taking his lawsuit claiming emotional distress to the top bench, after an appeals court ruled the group had the right to protest under the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression.
Also in the court’s docket is a case brought by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger calling for violent video games to be banned.
And the death penalty — a staple issue before the court — will also be reexamined in the case of convicted murderer Henry Skinner who says DNA tests would prove his innocence.
Last year, in a highly unusual reversal the Supreme Court ordered a new hearing into potentially exonerating evidence for high-profile death row inmate Troy Davis.
A controversial law adopted in Arizona on employing illegal immigrants will also go before the nine justices, along with questions on whether victims have the right to claim damages and compensation from pharmaceutical companies.
This year’s panel will meet for the first time in 35 years without John Paul Stevens who retired earlier this year when he reached the age of 90.
Though he was appointed by Republican president Gerald Ford, Stevens became one of the most charismatic, liberal figures on the bench during his long tenure.
But even if some of Stevens’s “views changed with time,” this did not counter the fact that “the Court moved to the right,” Bloch said.
Now Stephen Breyer, appointed by president Bill Clinton in 1994, is generally viewed as the leader of the liberal wing of the bench.
“I am dissenting more now than I was, say, five years ago — a lot more,” he told The New Yorker recently, referring to two Bush-era appointments which turned the court further to the right.
One factor though may stymie progress on a number of cases — Kagan served as Obama’s solicitor general before her appointment and as such prepared the government’s position on a number of the cases before the court this session.
She has recused herself from 21 of the 39 cases set to be heard this fall, opening the possibility of a split four-to-four tied decision. In such cases, the previous ruling by the appeals court will stand.
“Unlike most terms, this term may end with more uncertainty about where the Court stands on a number of important questions depending on the impact on Justice Kagan’s reclusals,” said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the civil rights group, the ACLU, said.
(with additional reporting by RAW STORY)