JUDY WOODRUFF: It's the first Monday in October, and the federal government may be shut down, but the Supreme Court opened its new term on schedule.
Ray Suarez takes a look at what lies ahead.
RAY SUAREZ: There isn't one single blockbuster case on the docket, as in recent Supreme Court terms, but the high court will consider a number of weighty issues. The nine justices will hear cases dealing with campaign finance, abortion, prayer in government, presidential power, affirmative action, and housing discrimination.
Our guide for the term will be, as always, Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal. She joins us now.
And before we get to the nitty-gritty, why didn't the Supreme Court shut down?
MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal: Well, our federal courts, including the Supreme Court, are dependent on congressional appropriations to operate. The Supreme Court says it can continue to operate at least through the end of this week, when it will then stop and evaluate.
Federal courts have a small source of independent money, usually from fines. But it's not going to be enough to carry it through a long-term shutdown. But the court has operated in prior shutdowns and even when blizzards have shut down Washington, D.C. I think there's a quiet sense of pride that it continues to do its work and to do it on time.
RAY SUAREZ: We mentioned at the outset that there isn't a single case, as there has been in recent terms.
MARCIA COYLE: Right.
RAY SUAREZ: But there is a lot of attention right out of the gate with campaign contributions. I couldn't spit it out there.
RAY SUAREZ: They are revisiting whether money can ever be regulated as speech when it's being given to a political campaign. Tell us about the case.
MARCIA COYLE: OK, Ray.
Well, this is a very important case. The court back in 1976 approved of the way Congress had divided campaign regulation between campaign spending and campaign contributions. It said that spending was something that you really could not regulate, put limits on. It was more closely aligned with pure speech under the First Amendment.
And -- but campaign contributions, even though they involve speech that was protected, you could regulate that because there was a greater risk of corruption or the appearance of corruption of giving large sums of money directly to a candidate or a political committee. This case is asking the justices whether the total limits on what someone can give in a two-year election cycle violates the First Amendment now.
The proponents of this case argue that the risk of corruption is no longer there because of changes in election laws over the years, and it's time to at least limit the aggregate total amount that can be given, but keep in place the base limits, limits that someone can contribute during one election.
RAY SUAREZ: So this would -- has the potential like so many of these cases for revisiting or revising what has been guiding case law, the guiding precedents on which a lot of decisions have been based, no?
MARCIA COYLE: In particular that 1976 decision. There are briefs that have been filed in the case aggressively asking the court to overturn it.
And the result is going to be basically more money in campaigns if the court goes down that road. But limits on contributions, the court has upheld those for almost 40 years now. They are considered sacrosanct. We will have to wait and see if the court is willing to take that very new step.
RAY SUAREZ: Let's look at some of the other big cases.
Abortion going to be revisited?
MARCIA COYLE: Yes, we're coming back to abortion. Two cases are on the docket. One involves a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics in Massachusetts. Back in 2000, the Supreme Court upheld an eight-foot buffer zone around clinics in Colorado.
Here again, those who are challenging the buffer zone are saying, well, if this 35-foot buffer zone doesn't comport with what you said in the 2000 case, overrule that 2000 case. The second case will be the first time the Supreme Court would look at medication abortions, drugs used to terminate a pregnancy, for example, RU-486.
This involves an Oklahoma law. It is in a strange position, because the court asked the Oklahoma Supreme Court to clarify the meaning of the law. It did what we call certified two questions to that court. Oklahoma Supreme Court hasn't answered yet. So we're not sure what the court's going to do when it does get the answers, whether it's going to go forward with it or not. That state law requires the drugs to be used according to the FDA label.
But since the FDA label was approved some seven years ago, I believe it is, science has advanced, and there is now an off-label use.
RAY SUAREZ: The Supreme Court has been ruling on prayer in public institutions for half-a-century now.
MARCIA COYLE: There's another one.
RAY SUAREZ: But I guess they have to do another one now. Tell us...
MARCIA COYLE: That's right.
This -- this issue goes back to 1983, when that Supreme Court met in that term, upheld legislative prayers in a challenge brought to the Nebraska legislature's use of prayers at opening sessions. The case before the court now involves the town of Greece, New York, which opens its town board meetings with prayers by local clergies -- clergy.
The lower federal appellate court found that those prayers were predominantly Christian in nature, and that violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. So the Supreme Court is going to have to look once again at how much government accommodation of prayer in the public sphere it's going to allow.
RAY SUAREZ: Are there still some big cases waiting to find out if they have been granted cert, that is, the court has agreed to hear them for this term?
MARCIA COYLE: Absolutely, Ray.
We may see the health care law back -- in fact, I'm almost sure we will -- before the end of this term. There are some for-profit business owners who have challenged the mandate that they provide health care insurance that includes contraception. They contend that that mandate violates their religious beliefs.
And there are two cases involving cell phone searches by police and whether they violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.
RAY SUAREZ: Marcia Coyle from The National Law Journal, thanks a lot.
MARCIA COYLE: My pleasure, Ray.