Race, Religion, Speech Cases Await Rulings In Supreme Court's Final Days

Saturday, June 23rd 2007, 2:48 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Nearly seven months have passed since the Supreme Court heard arguments about public school integration plans. A decision, it seems, is finally at hand.

Whether school districts can use race as a factor in assigning students to schools is the biggest unresolved issue among the eight remaining cases. But as the court enters what is expected to be the final week of its term, several other important topics loom. They include disputes over limits on speech, separation of church and state and executing the mentally ill.

The court's final days are being watched perhaps even more closely than usual this year because this is the first full term for Chief Justice John Roberts and the current lineup of justices.

Decisions so far in cases on abortion, discrimination and the rights of defendants have put the court on a more conservative footing with the addition of President Bush's two appointees, Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

``It will tell us so much more about the Roberts court when we see decisions on hot-button issues like race and religion,'' said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who argues before the court and follows it closely.

It is typical for justices to leave some of the hardest cases to the end, writing opinions that have been the subject of lengthy negotiations and that often are accompanied by multiple dissents and concurrences.

``The court may be the least dangerous branch, but it doesn't want to be the least interesting, said Douglas Kmiec, a Pepperdine University law professor and former Republican administration official.

``Holding the most compelling matters to the end is also a function of legal difficulty, and of course, it also bolsters and reaffirms the court's importance,'' he said.

The court last tackled the topic of race and education in 2003, upholding the consideration of race in admissions to the University of Michigan law school.

Since then, however, the author of that opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, has retired. Alito took her place.

When the court heard challenges to school assignment plans in Louisville, Ky., and Seattle in December, a majority of the justices appeared inclined to strike down one or both plans.

Roberts was among the justices critical of taking race into account. He commented that the legacy of the court's landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1954 outlawing state-sponsored segregated schools should be race-blind programs.

``The purpose of the Equal Protection Clause is to ensure that people are treated as individuals rather than based on the color of their skin,'' Roberts said in December.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, one of four liberal justices, put the matter differently when she addressed a conference of judges and lawyers recently in Bolton Landing, N.Y. She suggested that the purpose of the plans is to keep schools from looking as they did before the Brown ruling and subsequent decisions requiring desegregation.

In remarks aired by the C-SPAN cable network, Ginsburg said the justices ``will determine whether the Equal Protection Clause prohibits race-conscious efforts by school districts to prevent resegregation.''

The last argument of the term in April concerned the constitutionality of a federal ban on the airing of ads that mention a candidate's name in the weeks before an election.

Prior to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, those ads were seen by opponents as essentially campaign ads. But they escaped federal regulation by not explicitly calling for a candidate's defeat or election.

The court previously upheld the ban. Now, it is being asked to overturn its earlier ruling or at least permit the ads in some circumstances. That could lead to a bigger role for corporations and labor unions in the 2008 campaign.

Among the more colorful pending matters is the ``Bong Hits 4 Jesus'' case, testing limits on students' speech rights.

The case grew out of the suspension of an Alaska high school student who displayed the 14-foot-long banner at a school-sanctioned event to watch the Olympic torch make its way through Juneau en route to the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

The student said he was asserting his right to speak out. The principal interpreted the banner as advocating drug use, which the student denied.

Another First Amendment case asks whether taxpayers can go into federal court to challenge spending by the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The decision will be the Roberts court's first on separation of church and state.

The justices also have yet to decide whether a Texas death row inmate is so mentally ill as to preclude his execution.

Scott Louis Panetti knows that he killed his in-laws in front of his estranged wife and young daughter, but he believes he is on death row because he preaches the word of God, his lawyers say.

The state argued that while Panetti is mentally ill, he clearly understands he was convicted and sentenced to death for murder.