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Affirmative action, war on terror among many issues before high court

By William Mears

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A busy Supreme Court term promises to get even more active in the new year, with growing speculation over a possible retirement and important cases involving affirmative action, sodomy laws, telemarketing and computer pornography.

The Court also could address campaign finance reform and constitutional issues arising from the government's ongoing war on terrorism.

"The term could get very interesting in the next few months," said Deanne Maynard, an appellate attorney with Jenner & Block, which has broad Supreme Court experience. "There are a number of blockbuster cases before the Court."

The justices return next week from a monthlong recess, but it is unclear whether William Rehnquist will join them on the bench. The 78-year-old chief justice has been recovering from knee surgery after a November fall in his Washington, D.C., home. He missed all of December's court arguments, but court officials said he has been in his office conducting business, and getting around with the help of a cane.

Rehnquist's absence has added to speculation among Court watchers that he will step down from the job after 31 years, 17 as chief justice. He met with President Bush several days before Christmas to discuss his request for an increase of federal judicial salaries, but sources said the subject of retirement was not raised.

Some analysts believe Rehnquist will remain seated. "If he thinks George W. Bush will be a one-term president, now might be the time to step down," said A.E. Dick Howard, law professor and constitutional scholar at the University of Virginia. "But if he thinks Bush will be around a second term, he may relax a bit. He likes being chief justice. And he doesn't have to answer to anyone but himself."

There is also speculation Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 72, may retire.

Sodomy law, free speech cases before justices

Court watchers agree this term has an unusually high number of controversial cases.

"This court certainly doesn't lack self-confidence," Howard said. "It's a conservative activism for the most part, but the justices aren't afraid to decide where the legal lines are drawn."

start quoteIt's a conservative activism for the most part, but the justices aren't afraid to decide where the legal lines are drawn.end quote
-- A.E. Dick Howard, constitutional scholar

The most anticipated case involves the University of Michigan's affirmative action program, with justices considering whether such policies should continue to help minorities, or whether they represent "reverse discrimination." (More on the case)

Other cases also scheduled to be argued:

• Whether a Texas anti-sodomy law discriminates against homosexuals and violates due-process rights. The case involves Houston police who entered a home on false reports of an armed intruder, found two men engaged in sex and charged them under a state law criminalizing "deviant sexual intercourse." Thirteen states currently have anti-sodomy statutes.

• A free speech case involving whether states can pursue fraud claims against telemarketers. Illinois officials say a company soliciting donations on behalf of a Vietnam War veterans group should have told prospective donors 85 percent of the money raised went to the telemarketer, not the charity.

• Another free speech case testing whether public libraries receiving federal money can be forced to install filtering software on their computers. A federal law passed in 2000 was designed to keep sexually explicit material on the Internet from children, but opponents of the law say the 14 million adults who use library computers would unfairly be denied information on a broad range of topics, many of it non-pornographic. Previous court decisions have struck down congressional attempts to regulate access to adult material on the Internet.

• An abortion protest dispute also testing the limits of free speech. The Nuremberg Files is an anti-abortion Web site that used so-called "wanted" posters listing the names and addresses of abortion providers. The group behind it was convicted of threats and intimidation under federal racketeering and extortion laws. This case is similar in scope to another case argued last month involving disruptive protests outside abortion clinics.

The court will hear about 80 other cases before the term ends, including government access to gun records, forcing anti-psychotic medication on defendants about to stand trial, visitation rights of prisoners and immunity for Indian reservations.

The court could soon delve into two other timely issues: political campaigns and terrorism. Justices are expected to hear a case involving campaign finance laws designed to go into effect for the 2004 election. The McCain-Feingold bill would ban so-called "soft money," unlimited contributions to the national parties, and would ban advocacy ads 60 days before an election -- ads criticizing or supporting a candidate's stand on an issue.

The case is quickly making its way through lower courts and could be argued before the justices by term's end in June.

Potential constitutional conflicts over the Bush administration's fight against terrorism could also soon find their way in the Supreme Court. For many, the cases test whether the very civil liberties the government is trying to defend are being undermined with overly aggressive tactics that infringe on basic guarantees of fundamental freedoms. (More on the issues)

Solicitor General Theodore Olson, who argued cases for the Bush administration before the Supreme Court, said on CNN recently the government has a dual mission in its war on terror. "We protect people's rights," he said. "We do what we can to protect people's lives, but we protect their liberties at the same time."

And in a historical milestone, rallies and other events will mark the 30th anniversary of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, where the Supreme Court on January 22, 1973, affirmed a woman's right to an abortion.

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