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Supreme Court term packed with meaty cases

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau




Supreme Court
Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The 2005-2006 U.S. Supreme Court term starts Monday with a meaty docket that features a number of contentious social issues.

Click on the issues below to find out the facts, arguments and possible impacts of the cases.

Assisted suicide

Religion and drugs

Military recruiting

Abortion notification

Abortion protests

Miranda rights

Death penalty and DNA evidence

Death penalty and sentencing

Search and seizure


Gonzales v. Oregon

At issue: Whether federal authority trumps state law allowing doctors to prescribe lethal doses of medicine to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

The case: The Death with Dignity Act was passed by Oregon voters in 1994 and went into effect three years later. The Bush administration wants the court to overturn the referendum, saying it led to more than 200 suicides. Most victims had life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer.

The arguments: The Justice Department says federal law -- the Controlled Substances Act -- gives it the power over states when it comes to doctors prescribing lethal doses of pain-killing drugs. The San Francisco-based Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in May ruled the government exceeded its authority and said doctors could not be prosecuted or sanctioned when prescribing the deadly drugs. In its appeal the Bush administration said physician-assisted suicide lacks "legitimate medical purpose" and is not a "treatment" under legal standards.

The impact: This administration has been waging an aggressive anti-drug campaign while asserting federal authority in its fight against what it calls abuse of drugs, legal or illegal. In June the White House won a separate, high-profile appeal when the high court concluded doctors can be blocked from prescribing marijuana to patients suffering from pain caused by cancer or other serious illnesses.


Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao do Vegetal

The case: Customs officers in 1999 raided the home of the leader of a Santa Fe, New Mexico, church, seizing 30 gallons of hoasca. The herbal brew contained dimethyltryptamine, a controlled substance known as DMT that the federal government calls "a mind-altering hallucinogen." The Brazil-based church, with about 140 members in the United States, and 8,000 members worldwide, uses the beverage as a sacrament in its practices.

The arguments: The church cited the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in its lawsuit against the government. Since the leaves used to make the tea were imported, the Bush administration invoked its power to block trade, saying hoasca has no "recognized medicinal value." Officials say they have a responsibility to protect "the health and safety" of church members, and worry the drug could be diverted to recreational users.

The impact: This is an unusual fight, pitting claims of religious freedom against an aggressive anti-drug stance taken by the government. There also is a strong international law component to the case, with the United States arguing it must fulfill obligations to a United Nations drug control treaty signed by it and 160 countries.


Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic and Institutional Rights

At issue: A free speech dispute over whether universities can ban military recruiters from campus.

The case: Nearly every law school and many universities have a policy preventing employers who discriminate based on race, gender or sexual orientation from participating in career placement on campus. The military told schools it could not comply with the sexual orientation provision because of its "don't-ask, don't-tell" policy created in 1993. That law prevented officials from asking whether a service member was gay or lesbian but allowed the military to discharge homosexuals if evidence of their orientation emerged. Many schools responded by banning military recruiters, and Congress responded in 1994 by blocking federal funds from schools that tried.

The arguments: The "Solomon Amendment," as it has become known, eventually prompted compromise among universities and the military. But the Bush administration took a hard-line stance after 9/11, demanding equal access for other job recruiters. A group of law schools sued, arguing a constitutional right "to be free from compelled endorsement of messages repugnant to them." The government said it sought only equal treatment. But the schools countered that they were being asked to grant an exemption that other employers did not get. A federal appeals court ruled for the schools, concluding "unconstitutional conditions" existed when the government restricted speech by threatening to withhold money.

The impact: There have been calls for the court to act quickly, because military preparedness in time of war may be threatened. The Pentagon has suffered shortfalls in its recruiting goals in recent months, and there are pressing needs for soldiers with certain high-level, specialized academic skills, such as translators, engineers and lawyers.


Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood of Northern New England

At issue: Is a state law requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortion too restrictive?

The case: New Hampshire's legislature in 2003 passed a law making it illegal for an abortion to be performed on a minor unless a parent or legal guardian is notified in writing 48 hours in advance. The only exception is if the procedure is necessary to prevent the mother's death.

The arguments: A federal appeals court dismissed the law as too restrictive, since it did not provide broader exceptions to protect the health of the minor when her life was not threatened. New Hampshire claims existing laws provide for such health contingencies. At least 33 states have parental notification laws.

The impact: No legal issue continues to resonate more with Americans than abortion. The last time the high court intervened in an important abortion-related case was in 2000, when it threw out a Nebraska law banning a controversial late-term procedure opponents call "partial-birth" abortion. Similar legal arguments are present in the Ayotte case.

Since the court's 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion, various states have tried to place restrictions and exceptions on access to the procedure, prompting a string of high court "clarifications" on the issue over the years. A more subtle but potentially monumental argument in Ayotte involves what legal standard should be applied when courts review abortion laws. The judge in this case allowed courts to ban enforcement of such laws before they take effect. Precedent allows for a less-tolerant standard of review, but that standard has never been applied within the abortion context. Currently, justices have applied the "no undue burden" standard when deciding whether abortion laws are too restrictive.


Scheidler v. NOW; Operation Rescue v. NOW

At issue: Limits on what protests anti-abortion activists may engage in outside medical clinics.

The case: Courts have been wrestling with this issue for two decades. Complicating matters have been conflicting rulings over the years from the Supreme Court. The high court already has ruled on protest guidelines: specifying distance from the clinics and what kind of conduct is permissible.

The arguments: The justices will revisit their ruling of two years ago that said protesters cannot be prosecuted simply for harassing patients and staff, blocking doors and other disruptive behavior. In this case, the court is asked to clarify whether federal laws against racketeering and extortion can be used against those who, according to the official court filing, organize "sit-ins and demonstrations that obstruct public's access" to clinics. Abortion rights supporters say those laws were the only solution to what they call dangerous, often violent behavior aimed at people seeking or providing the medical procedure. They filed suit in federal court more than a decade ago. Operation Rescue, one of the plaintiffs in the case, says the case is about free speech and the right of assembly.

The impact: Both this case and the abortion notification appeal became a rhetorical centerpiece in Chief Justice John Roberts' Senate confirmation hearings. President Bush's nominee to replace retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor also can expect the issue to dominate the political and legal debate.


Maryland v. Blake

At issue: Whether taunting comments by police amount to interrogation of a criminal suspect.

The case: Leeander Blake and another male were charged with murder in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2002. The victim was shot in the head and allegedly run over with his own SUV by the assailants. Blake, 17 at the time, initially refused to talk with police. But when an officer showed Blake the charging documents that showed "death" as potential punishment, another officer told the suspect, "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" Apparently concerned such a remark was improper, a detective then said Blake could not be questioned. But an hour later, the young suspect changed his mind and gave incriminating statements without a lawyer present.

The arguments: Maryland's high court threw out the incriminating statements, saying Blake already had invoked his right to an attorney. The "I bet you want to talk now, huh?" statement was ruled as the functional equivalent of an interrogation. The state has offered differing accounts of whether Blake voluntarily waived his Miranda rights when talking with police.

The impact: Miranda cases long have been part of the court's docket. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist tried several times in his 33 years on the bench to get rid of or severely curtail mandatory use of the warnings, which have become familiar part of police procedure. The case comes before a court with a new makeup and at a time when law enforcement actions have gained greater scrutiny in a post 9/11 environment.


House v. Bell

At issue: Standards of proof for granting new hearings to capital defendants claiming "actual innocence" based on new DNA evidence.

The case: Paul House was a convicted sex offender who was sentenced to death two decades ago for rape and murder. Recent DNA tests, which were not in use at the time of House's conviction, showed semen on the victim's clothes came from her husband, different from what the jury had concluded.

The arguments: Tennessee officials argued there was not enough evidence to reopen the case. For House, his burden is showing the "powerful new evidence" should win him a new hearing and that it is not too late in the process to file an appeal. The Supreme Court in 1995 ruled a convicted murderer could receive a new trial if his or her "actual innocence" claim showed the new evidence made it likely "no reasonable juror would have found him guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." A federal appeals court ultimately ruled House did not meet that standard. The high court here will not determine House's innocence or guilt, only the standard that should be applied.

The impact: It is the issue that haunts many of those who must decide and carry out executions: the possibility an innocent person will be put to death. This case will mark the first time the impact of genetic technology will be tested on the right to a fair trial. Such evidence has revolutionized the legal justice system, especially relevant for those defendants convicted before reliable scientific techniques came into use. Five death penalty-related cases are on the court's docket, and more are likely to be added.

The conservative majority on the bench has, in general, upheld the use of capital punishment. But the justices have been aggressive in recent years in carving out exceptions. In its last term alone the justices banned the execution of people under 18 at the time of their crimes; concluded death-row defendants could not be shackled in front of jurors at the sentencing phase of a trial; and threw out the convictions of defendants who received a sloppy defense, were subject to prosecutorial misconduct and where jury discrimination prevented a fair trial.


Oregon v. Guzek

Kansas v. Marsh At issue: Two appeals involving whether evidence questioning guilt or culpability can be presented at sentencing, and whether defendants should be sentenced to death when jurors find arguments for and against execution carry equal weight.

The Guzek case: In the Oregon appeal, Randy Guzek's death sentence has been overturned three times by the state's highest court. He was 18 when he was convicted in the home invasion/robbery/murder of Rod and Lois Houser in June 1987.

The arguments: During the sentencing portion of Guzek's trial, the defense tried to introduce witness testimony -- "findings of fact" -- that placed him away from the murder scene. His attorneys called this "mitigating evidence" designed to spare the young man from lethal injection. Various courts have disagreed on whether it was actually "alibi evidence" that went straight to whether a defendant was guilty and should have been presented during the guilt or innocence phase of the trial.

The impact: A ruling in Guzek's case could set a precedent in the guilty plea of accused 9/11 conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui. The Moroccan native has admitted to six terrorism counts, but is fighting the death penalty a jury could impose. He wants to present witness testimony at the sentencing phase he says would show he had no direct involvement in the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

The Marsh case: Michael Marsh was one of six defendants whose death sentences were thrown out by the Kansas Supreme Court when it struck down the state's death penalty statute. Marsh was convicted in the 1996 murders of a Wichita woman and her 19-month-old daughter, who was left to burn to death in the family home. The state's high court also granted Marsh a new trial, concluding the trial judge should have allowed evidence that others may have been involved in the killings.

The arguments: The Kansas high court declared unconstitutional a 1994 law that said if evidence for and against imposing the death penalty is equally balanced, state juries must choose death instead of life in prison. The court said the requirement violated Marsh's constitutional guarantees of due process and protection from "cruel and unusual punishment." The Supreme Court is being asked to reinstate the 1994 law.


Georgia v. Randolph

At issue: Can police search homes for drugs when occupants disagree over consent?

The case: Scott Randolph was charged with cocaine possession in 2001 after a domestic disturbance complaint by his wife. When Americus, Georgia, police arrived, Janet Randolph led them to a hidden drug stash in the house, over Scott's objection to the search.

The arguments: The Constitution bans "unreasonable searches and seizures," and Georgia's high court said police should have deferred to an objecting occupant's wishes when there was equal use and control of a house. Other state courts have disagreed, saying consent from one occupant is enough.

The impact: The high court will try to resolve the judicial conflicts on an issue it regularly has reviewed. In the previous term, the court, as it has in recent similar cases, sided twice with police. The justices allowed drug-sniffing dogs to inspect cars stopped for routine traffic violations and permitted residents to be handcuffed for hours while premises are searched for weapons or criminal suspects.

Hudson v. Booker

This separate appeal will allow the justices to re-examine the "knock-and-announce" rule when police prepare to enter a home with a search warrant. In this case, Detroit police failed to knock and did not wait for anyone to answer the door before breaking in. Drugs were found in the residence and the suspect argued that any evidence should be suppressed at trial. Police argue the "inevitable discovery" doctrine pre-empts any knock-and-announce violation.

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