Order in the Court
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JIM LEHRER: The Supreme Court’s new term and to our new senior correspondent, Gwen Ifill. Welcome, Gwen.
GWEN IFILL: Thanks, Jim. For a preview of the Supreme Court’s 1999 term we are joined by NewsHour regular Jan Crawford-Greenburg, National Legal Affairs Correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. Hi, Jan. It’s the first Monday in October. We expect a lot of activity, but there’s a tremendous amount of activity — race, politics, sex, religion, all the things you were warned not to talk about at the dinner table. Can you give us some sort of sense about how wide ranging the court’s actions are going to be this term?
JAN CRAWFORD-GREENBURG: Well, this is poised to be the most contentious term the court has had in quite some time. All of these issues could have dramatic implications for the way Americans live, work, play, even how Americans get medical treatment. The court is wading into countless disputes.
They’ve split legislatures, HMO’s in their cost cutting effort, big tobacco — federal aid to religious schools and perhaps the implications that that could have for school vouchers. They’re also taking up these emotionally charged issues that the court has sometimes shied away from — grandparents’ rights, for example — how far the government can go to regulate — protecting children. So it’s going to be a quite interesting term with quite important implications for American citizens.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s see how many we can plow through one by one. There’s so many interesting things they’ve taken up, including the issue of tobacco, things which Congress has shied away from doing anything about. What is the court’s case on tobacco?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Many people are saying that is the big blockbuster business case. The court will decide whether or not the F.D.A. has the authority to regulate tobacco as a drug and cigarettes as drug delivery devices. Health advocates are calling this the most significant issue to reach the court in recent years. They say it could have dramatic impact on the government’s efforts to regularity nicotine and could have important implications for the sale and marketing of cigarettes.
GWEN IFILL: How about H.M.O.’s, they have become the boogieman of American consumer society. Everybody wants to be able to have the right to sue their H.M.O., at least that’s what the polls show. Congress doesn’t take action. The Supreme Court might.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: This involves a case from Illinois and asked whether or not a patient can sue her H.M.O. for violating its duty to provide proper medical care. The woman claimed that the H.M.O. violated that duty because it offered cost saving incentives to doctors.
GWEN IFILL: Federal government and state governments, they obviously don’t, rule differently on different things. We have questions like aid to parochial schools, violence against women. Give us a thumbnail sketch.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: There are I think two important themes that are already emerging from the 45 case that is the court has taken so far. One involves federalism, an issue that has very much fascinated this court in recent terms, involves the power, the balance of power between the federal government and the states.
There are four cases on the agenda already that will get into that issue. One of them involves whether or not Congress went too far. It involved itself in areas handled by the state under the Violence Against Women Act, which authorizes victims of gender motivated violence to sue their attackers.
The other area, the other important area that the court has indicated that it’s going to get involved with is the first amendment. And seven or eight very important cases already involving the freedom of speech and religion and you mentioned the federal aid to religious schools, a case that many people are arguing could have important implications for legislative efforts to authorize school vouchers.
GWEN IFILL: Another important first amendment case which we expect to hear something about this week involves campaign contributions.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That’s right.
GWEN IFILL: Whether they constitute free speech.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That case will be argued tomorrow and it involves a state law from Missouri that imposed restrictions on campaign contributions of $1,075. Obviously very much interest in that because the federal limits of $1,000 could come into play here. The 8th Circuit Federal Appeals Court said that the Missouri law was unconstitutional because the $1,075 limit simply was too low. So people who are watching that case say that could have important impact on federal campaign finance reform as well.
GWEN IFILL: So how does the Playboy Channel figure into all of this? There is also a case involving them?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: That goes under I think the First Amendment theme the court is developing, and it goes to the government’s efforts to restrict speech that some people find obscene or indecent. It involves a 1996 law that limited things like the Playboy Channel on cable television to hours of 10:00 P.M. and 6:00 A.M. if the cable companies could not completely scramble the channel.
About 70 percent can’t do that because they get the signal bleed and you can still hear something. They have to completely limit the Playboy Channel. Now, there is another case that involves this government relation of this indecent or obscene expression and that comes from Erie, Pennsylvania. It involves nude dancing, how far can communities go in an effort to ban nude dancing?
GWEN IFILL: On the other end of the cultural spectrum is grandparents’rights, whether grandparents or other relatives have access to children in relationships where there has been divorce or death or some other kind of separation.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Right, a very emotionally charged case coming from Washington State that pits the grandparents’ interest in seeing their grandchildren against the parents – as the Washington Supreme Court said — the parents’ fundamental right to raise their children without state interference.
GWEN IFILL: What kind of a court is this going to be? It’s been a closely divided court – we know this politically. All the politicians running for various offices are keeping an eye on it. What can we expect?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: The very controversial cases of recent years have been very closely divided. For example the federalism cases have been divided by a 5-4 margin so those are always going to be closely monitored. Particularly you know as you mentioned with the upcoming presidential election by a presidential candidate who might be hoping to tip the balance in some of those cases.
GWEN IFILL: Seventeen days ago today Justice Ruth Ginsburg went into Washington Hospital Center and was operated on for cancer. She is back in the court today and how did she look?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: Beaming and really just as animated as ever. Right away, she in the first case that was argued today jumped right in and asked some very forceful questions and continued with questions throughout the argument today. She looked great and it was really wonderful seeing her back on the bench. The cancer was caught very early. Her colon cancer was caught very early and it looks like she is going to be able to make a complete and speedy recovery.
GWEN IFILL: We’ve heard about Ruth Ginsburg’s ailments. It raised a lot of questions about succession on the court. It made people very nervous about that. Has this all quieted down?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: No, I think that every term you hear speculation, now with the presidential campaign going on, you are going to continue to hear speculation, perhaps even more so, about possible retirements, Justice John Paul Stevens, there are rumors a couple of years ago that he was going to step down. The Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justice O’Connor, rumors that they because of health problems -
GWEN IFILL: She was sick as well.
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: She had had cancer, that they might be stepping down several years a ago. That is always going to be on the table. This is a court that is very – I think despite its close divisions, very congenial, collegial. They seem to really enjoy themselves. Stevens shows no signs of slowing down nor do any of the other justices who are often rumored their retirements are imminent.
GWEN IFILL: But they have a heavy docket this year. Are they all up to it?
JAN CRAWFORD GREENBURG: I’m sure they are and they’re going to be taking more cases through January. Over potential cases such as the validity of the Miranda rights, school vouchers are on the horizon, so I’m sure they’re up for that.
GWEN IFILL: A lot to talk about, thank you very much, Jan.