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Obscure and notable cases await justices

By Bill Mears

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Monday's observance of Yom Kippur delays oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court for a day, but cases ranging from the obscure to the attention-grabbing will populate the docket when the session starts.

The traditional start of the fall term of the Supreme Court is the first Monday in October, mandated by federal law in 1975. This is the first year the court calendar has been officially changed to accommodate the Jewish holiday.

Among the cases awaiting the justices this fall are a 300-year-old dispute over water rights along the Potomac River, phone service, religious expression, police searches and campaign finance reform.

The 2003 docket is strong and diverse, but of equal importance are pending cases that may quickly find their way before the court. In addition to terrorism-related cases, justices could consider accepting some church-vs.-state cases, including one dealing with the public display of the Ten Commandments and another on the Pledge of Allegiance.

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Should the justices elect to hear U.S. v. Newdow, at issue is whether the Pledge of Allegiance should be banned from public schools for its phrase "under God." One case to be heard involving religion is Locke v. Davey, where the question is whether the government can bar state funds for religious instruction while at the same time allowing public money for secular study.

Privacy and politics are at the center of cases testing the limits on police searches and to what length partisanship can affect election maps.

But while some cases may garner attention because of their broad public appeal, none are much more noteworthy than the others.

"There are no real blockbuster cases on the docket so far," says David Garrow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and leading court historian. "But there are a number of unusual cases out there, issues the justices want to revisit."

Reform redux

The biggest case the justices could address this term is one they have already heard. The nine-member court returned early from summer recess to preside over arguments September 8 in the campaign finance overhaul case.

At issue is a sweeping federal law setting strict limits on many types of political fund-raising, including so-called "soft money" and spending on media ads, which the court wants to resolve before the federal primary election season. A ruling could come as early as November.

The justices are preparing to rethink the way law enforcement has long treated criminal suspects. The court will hear three separate challenges involving so-called Miranda rights, based on the 1966 case giving constitutional protections to the accused.

One case will address admitting evidence gathered before police read suspects their rights. Two others are about suspects giving confessions before being advised of their right to remain silent.

About five cases on the docket concern limits on police searches and seizures. These cases could establish important precedents as the court prepares to decide whether to hear a number of pending legal challenges to the Bush administration's fight against domestic terrorism.

"Law enforcement is telling the courts that in a post 9/11 world, the rules have changed," says David Yalof, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut and author of "Pursuit of Justices."

"They want more latitude to set up roadblocks, things like that, to prevent terrorism and other violent crimes. And it's unclear how the Supreme Court will respond to that kind of argument."

Tracking terror

Some court watchers see the justices quickly tackling terror-related cases.

"I would think they would want to hear these cases rather soon, if the right kind of legal challenge is presented [to the justices]," said Eugene Fidell, a military law attorney. "These are incredibly important issues that need to be resolved."

But others see the justices taking a go-slow approach, waiting for appeals to fully work their way through the lower courts. As Garrow puts it, "Most of the trains haven't arrived yet at the station."

The justices have not been willing to interfere with enforcement of various Justice Department policies.

The court in May rejected an appeal to allow public access to closed hearings involving hundreds of so-called "special interest" immigrants, many of them of Muslim or Arab descent detained in near secrecy shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks.

The justices in March also rejected an appeal from the American Civil Liberties Union over government surveillance powers, which were increased with passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act by Congress shortly after the terror attacks.

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