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Campaign finance highlights next Supreme Court session

By Kevin Drew Law Editor

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(CNN) -- This September 8, Supreme Court justices will hear arguments in the constitutionality of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law. The date, a full month before the court regularly opens its 2003-2004 session, underscores the importance of that case.

But campaign finance reform is just one of several issues starting to fill the court's future docket. The justices are also expected to tackle issues ranging from civil liberties, the environment, congressional spending and the rights of death row inmates in the coming year.

Next year's court session may very well hear cases dealing with issues the justices have faced before, analysts say, such as gay rights, family medical leave and partial-birth abortions.

The growing number of federal judges that have been appointed by President George W. Bush is partly shaping the high court's future docket, said Christopher Zorn, a political science professor at Emory University.

"While attention has focused on a possible Supreme Court retirement and on a few highly publicized (federal court) nominees, Bush is getting a lot of people appointed, particularly the court of appeals," Zorn said.

These judges are more conservative ideologically than their predecessors, Zorn said, and their rulings will help determine what appeals are made to the Supreme Court.

Campaign finance among set cases

The Supreme Court's September session -- technically still a part of the current 2002-2003 term -- devoted to the McCain-Feingold law comes in the court's summer recess, nearly a month before justices are scheduled to resume hearing cases.

The campaign finance law bans so-called soft money, the unlimited and unregulated contributions to national political parties. It also prohibits advocacy advertisements 60 days before an election -- ads criticizing or supporting a candidate's stand on an issue. The law also imposes contribution limits and donor disclosure requirements.

McCain-Feingold supporters say it is designed to prevent corruption in politics. Opponents say it would criminalize free speech.

Sponsored by U.S. Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, and Reps. Christopher Shays, R-Connecticut, and Marty Meehan, D-Massachusetts, the bill was signed by President Bush and applies to the election cycle leading up to the 2004 elections.

After its passage, 84 plaintiffs filed a variety of lawsuits, led by U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, and a bipartisan coalition of groups including the AFL-CIO, National Rifle Association, American Civil Liberties Union, Republican National Committee and California Democratic Party. Those lawsuits were consolidated into one case, McConnell v. FEC (02-1674).

The Federal Election Commission and Justice Department are the lead defendants, supported by the bill's congressional sponsors and a variety of campaign reform groups.

Among other cases set for next year will be arguments in a case that touches on states' rights and environmental laws. The court will decide whether a federal clean air law pre-empts California regulations that prohibit the purchase of new diesel-fueled vehicles.

The court will hear an appeal by a Texas death row inmate who claims his original set of lawyers were incompetent, and that prosecutors kept African-Americans off the all-white jury during his trial. The inmate, Delma Banks, is black.

Detention of U.S. citizens may go before court

Most Supreme Court observers expect at least one civil liberties case, and possibly more, will work their way onto next year's docket.

"Early on there may not be many cases, but eventually there will be plenty of habeus corpus, free-speech and fair-trial cases," said Lawrence Baum, professor at Ohio State University.

Among the various civil liberties issues the Supreme Court likely will tackle next session will be:

-- A ruling last year by a secret court -- established under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) -- stating that prosecutors who want to consult with intelligence agents must first advise the Justice Department in advance and invite lawyers to participate. Justice Department officials maintain the Patriot Act allows for more robust coordination between intelligence agencies and law enforcement.

-- The ongoing legal battle over whether the names of people detained by the federal government in its war against terrorism should be publicly released.

-- The detention of Yaser Esam Hamdi, a U.S. citizen continuing to be held as an enemy combatant in a military jail. If the Hamdi case makes it to the Supreme Court next term, it could be the most significant of the civil liberties cases, said Michael Dorf, a law professor at Columbia University and a veteran Supreme Court observer.

"The real question in this case ... is who makes the threshold determination of using a civilian or military legal system," Dorf said. "It's a classic case of executive and congressional power versus judicial power."

Retirements could determine future cases

Most Supreme Court observers say the return of familiar issues to the court will depend largely on if there are retirements announced, and if so, who retires. The opportunity for President Bush to nominate a conservative justice could reopen earlier decisions.

Additionally, the court could revisit the abortion issue, depending on who retires, and how many retirements there are, analysts say.

The Supreme Court in 2000 struck down Nebraska's law banning partial-birth abortions. That ruling came on a 5-4 vote, with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor providing the swing vote. But analysts say six justices support the broader question of a woman's right to an abortion.

"You would need to have O'Connor and Stevens leave to have any change on the larger, broader question," Dorf said.

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