Legal punishment or murder: As Timothy McVeigh awaits execution, the U.S. debates the death penalty. (5/16/01)
Democracy: Do we take it for granted? (7/04/00)
Boy Scouts: The Supreme Court says the Scouts may exclude gays
Grandparents' Rights: The Supreme Court decides-- in some cases-- parents have the final say. (6/06/00)
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As another sign things are returning to normal, the U.S. Supreme Court began a new term this week. By law, the Court opens the first Monday in October of each year. The session usually ends in June.
This is the 211th session for the nation's highest court, but this one was different.
Sharing a moment of silence, the nine justices honored the victims of the September 11 attacks.
"Our hearts go out to the families of the killed and injured," said the Chief Justice William Rehnquist. "In the aftermath of the attacks, we have witnessed extraordinary bravery and compassion from Americans of all walks of life."
The court also offered condolence to U.S. Solicitor General, Theodore Olsen, whose wife died in the attacks.
The first task for the court was to sort through thousands of petitions filed by people who want the Court to hear their case.
This year, it rejected nearly 2000 petitions filed over the summer. The toss-outs included a petition for a new trial from Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols, a racial profiling case, and a Muslim woman's right to wear a headscarf at work.
The justices also ruled that former President Bill Clinton could not practice law before their court. Despite the thousands of rejected petitions, there are over 100 cases still waiting to be decided during the 2001-2002 session.
Wide and Varied
Supreme Court justices vote to decide which cases they will consider. A case must get votes from four justices to be considered.
Most cases have a core legal question that needs clarifying. For instance, if two lower courts ruled differently over the same matter and need resolution.
During the last term, the court decided disabled golfer Casey Martin could use a golf cart during professional PGA tournaments.
They also decided the Boy Scouts of America could bar gay scout leaders and that group prayer before a sport game at a public school is unconstitutional.
The court also decided a case during the disputed 2000 presidential election in favor of George W. Bush.
Last term, the court and some of its decisions were the talk of the nation. However, court news is likely to take a back seat to stories about how the president and Congress are fighting terrorism and building the economy.
The 01-02 Term
During this term, the Justices will hear cases dealing with the death penalty, school vouchers and freedom of expression.
There's Atkins vs. Virginia, in which the court will assess if executing mentally retarded murderers amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
The justices will also decide whether tax dollars can be spent to educate children at church-run schools.
Originally part of President Bush's education reforms, the issue of supporting religious-based education failed in Congress. Its supporters are taking the matter to court and hope to generate new interest if the court decides supporting these schools is legal.
Attorney General Ashcroft has a case pending before the court. Ashcroft vs. the Free Speech Coalition asks the court to rule on the posting of sexual images of children on the Internet. Congress banned such postings in 1996. Representatives of the entertainment industry say the law is too vague and want the court to redefine it.
Other cases include an affirmative action suit against the Transportation Department and the rights of the disabled. Many believe recent anti-terrorism legislation is likely to appear before the court, as civil liberty activists challenge the new laws.
The Final Word, Until Revised...
The U.S. Supreme Court, although highly respected, is far from perfect. In the past, the court has ruled in favor of things some might find "anti-American."
In the infamous 1857 Dred Scott case, the court ruled African-Americans were not citizens and could not sue for their freedom. Later in 1896, the court ruled separate but equal accommodations for races were legal.
However, during the 1953-54 term, the court ruled racial segregated schools were illegal.
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the death penalty was "cruel and unusual" punishment and a violation of the Constitution. In 1976, the Supreme Court reversed their decision and reinstated the death penalty.
In 1973, the court legalized abortion. The ruling allows women to have an abortion without interference from the government. But the court has since granted states the ability to limit some abortion practices.
legality of race-based admissions at colleges and universities is also an issue
often before the court.
The Big Nine
There are nine judges on the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist is the Chief Justice. Rehnquist has served as Chief Justice since 1986. The last justice appointed was Steven Breyer in 1994 by President Clinton.
Justices Rehnquist, Scalia, Thomas generally vote conservatively (to the political right). Justices Breyer, Souter and Ginsburg generally support more liberal decisions (to the political left). The left/right distinction comes from the fact that Republicans in Congress sit right of center, while Democrats sit to the left of center.
Justices O'Connor, Stevens and Kennedy tend to vote with the left or the right depending on the case. It's often their "swing votes" that decide the frequent 5 to 4 court decisions.
Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg are the only women to ever serve on the court. Justice Thomas is the second African-American to serve, following Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Despite the justice's commonality of all being over 50 years old, there is much diversity.
Multiple faiths make up the court; Ginsburg and Breyer are Jewish, while Thomas and Scalia are Roman Catholic and Rehnquist is Lutheran. Justice Thomas is divorced and remarried, and Justice Souter has never married.
They are mothers, fathers and grandparents. Some of the justices are millionaires. Some support abortion rights, some don't.
Nonetheless, the justices vigorously attempt to stay away from politics. It's most important that any court, especially the nation's top court, appear impartial to political parties.
In spite of political involvement in the past, justices rarely interact with the president or members of Congress.
Moreover, justices seldom attend presidential speeches. "The reason I go less and less is quite simply that I do not feel comfortable," said Justice Scalia on the subject.
However, five justices did attended President Bush's September 20 address on terrorism.
Just doing the Job
In the end, the justices that decide the judicial direction of the United States, are human beings. Its our system of government that allows the " big nine" to check and balance the 535 members of Congress and power of the presidency.
Judges say that their most important task is to ensure fair and just laws.
the awesome responsibility, when asked about the legacy of being a judge, Justice
O' Conner replied, "Ah, the tombstone question. I hope it says, here lies
a good judge."
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