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Big cases await U.S. Supreme Court's 2011-12 term

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer
updated 5:07 PM EDT, Sun October 2, 2011
The 2011-12 term for the Supreme Court starts Monday. Its caseload is usually settled by February.
The 2011-12 term for the Supreme Court starts Monday. Its caseload is usually settled by February.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 49 appeals are on high court's docket; dozens more may be added
  • On docket: television indecency, electronic surveillance
  • Such topics as health care law, gay marriage, immigration may be covered

Washington (CNN) -- Outlined below are some key cases the Supreme Court is scheduled to tackle in its 2011-12 term, which starts Monday.

Forty-nine appeals are on the high court's schedule. As many as three dozen more are expected to be added in coming months. The caseload for the term is usually settled by February.

Other controversial appeals that may yet be added to the high court's docket cover issues related to religious symbols on public land, travel to Cuba and bogus military honors.

Cases already on the Supreme Court docket:

TELEVISION INDECENCY: FCC v. Fox Television Stations

AT ISSUE: Whether the government's current TV indecency enforcement policies regarding profanity and sexual content violate the free speech and due process rights of broadcasters.

THE CASE: Controversial words and images have been aired in scripted and unscripted instances on all the major over-the-air networks in the past eight years, dating to when the FCC began considering a stronger, no-tolerance policy. The changes became known as the Golden Globes Rule, for singer Bono's 2003 acceptance speech at the live awards show on NBC, where he uttered the phrase "really, really, f---ing brilliant."

THE ARGUMENTS: The high court ruled two years ago in favor of the FCC over "fleeting expletives," but the justices refused at the time to decide whether the policy violated the First Amendment guarantee of free speech, ruling only on the agency's enforcement power. The justices will now hear the larger constitutional issue after the Justice Department, in its new appeal, lumped both the expletives and nudity cases together.

THE IMPACT: The TV networks and its supporters have framed this case as a larger free speech dispute that could affect a range of expressive and artistic content. But the Obama administration and parents groups say the broadcast airwaves are a public resource deserving of tough, tight regulation when networks fail to properly monitor their programming.

ELECTRONIC SURVEILLANCE: U.S. v. Jones

AT ISSUE: Whether the government violated a drug suspect's Fourth Amendment rights by installing a GPS tracking device on his motor vehicle without a valid search warrant and without his consent. Is movement in a private vehicle on city streets "public" in nature?

THE CASE: The devices send an electronic signal to a satellite, allowing real-time plotting of someone's whereabouts. Jones was suspected of trafficking cocaine, and FBI agents covertly attached a GPS device to his Jeep without first obtaining a search warrant. He was eventually tracked to suburban Maryland, where law enforcement discovered nearly 100 kilograms of the illegal narcotic, along with about $850,000 in cash. He was sentenced to life in prison.

THE ARGUMENTS: Jones calls his surveillance "Big Brother" intrusion, going far beyond traditional stakeouts and tailing of cars by police. The Justice Department cites a 1983 high court ruling allowing police to place an electronic beeper on a car without a warrant. That device, however, could be tracked only from a short distance. The justices ruled in 2001 that police needed a warrant before using thermal imaging technology to see whether anyone was inside a home.

THE IMPACT: This is perhaps the most important search and seizure case at the high court in a decade. Growing sophistication of electronic devices to monitor the movements of suspects makes this issue ripe for review, since lower courts have disagreed on when such surveillance is permissible. While this case deals with public areas like roads, sophisticated electronic surveillance in the home may again be the next legal frontier for the Supreme Court.

PRISON STRIP SEARCHES: Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington, New Jersey

AT ISSUE: A challenge to a New Jersey county's prison rules allowing suspicionless strip searches of everyone arrested for any minor offense, regardless of the circumstances.

THE CASE: Albert Florence says he was arrested in 2005 for unpaid parking fines, despite having proof that he had paid the money. He tells CNN of then being subjected to a pair of strip and visual body-cavity searches at two correctional facilities, which he calls a "humiliating" experience.

THE ARGUMENTS: Florence's lawyers say it is unreasonable under the Constitution for jail officials to engage in the "deep intrusion into personal dignity" of a strip search for every single individual, whatever the alleged crime. The state counters that such initial "intake" searches are justified, when applied consistently to every inmate and for proper reasons, including "both health threats and the increasing need to identify gang members upon their entry into the institution."

THE IMPACT: Lower federal courts have been at odds in the past decade over the limits of these kinds of custody searches.

DEATH ROW MISTAKE: Maples v. Thomas

AT ISSUE: Whether a missed deadline to file a key appeal is justification to grant a death row inmate a second chance when the error was not the prisoner's fault and the result would mean a punishment as serious as lethal injection.

THE CASE: Cory Maples was convicted in the 1995 murder of two companions. On appeal, Maples now claims two lawyers working pro bono for him eventually left their law firm without telling him or the state, leaving confusion over where required paperwork should have been directed. A state judge then refused Maples a chance to refile his appeals.

THE ARGUMENTS: Maples' current attorney says the criminal justice system has been turned on its head by allowing prisoners to suffer the consequences of their lawyers' mistakes or incompetence. But state attorneys argue that long-established rules on filing often complex paperwork must be strictly enforced to ensure that all parties -- including the courts-- get a proper chance to hear the claims in an orderly fashion.

THE IMPACT: Among the 34 states with the death penalty, Alabama alone does not automatically give all its 200-plus current capital inmates taxpayer-funded legal assistance to file papers challenging their convictions, sentences and lethal punishment. Big law firms often step in and tackle the long and expensive appeals process. This is another case in which the high court will examine the procedural aspects of capital punishment and whether death row inmates are being given a full and fair chance to press their post-conviction claims.

Cases that may be added to the Supreme Court docket in coming months:

HEALTH CARE REFORM: Various pending appeals from Virginia, Michigan, Florida and two dozen other states

AT ISSUE: Whether the sweeping congressional law reforming health care costs and services is an unconstitutional exercise of federal authority, particularly the "individual mandate" section, requiring nearly all Americans to purchase health insurance by 2014 or face financial penalties.

THE CASE: In 2010, the Democratic-controlled Congress passed -- and President Obama signed -- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which among its 450 provisions would also expand the federal Medicare and Medicaid programs. Twenty-eight states and dozens of private plaintiffs have sued to stop the law's enforcement. Appeals courts have split on its constitutionality, setting up an almost certain Supreme Court review in coming months.

THE ARGUMENTS: Opponents argue that the Constitution's Commerce Clause does not give government the authority to force Americans to purchase a commercial product like health insurance, which they may not want or need. The states equate such a requirement to a burdensome regulation of "inactivity." The Obama administration counters that since every American will need medical care at some point in their lives, individuals do not "choose" to participate in the health care market. Federal officials cite 2008 figures of $43 billion in uncompensated costs from the millions of uninsured people who receive health services, costs that are shifted to insurance companies and passed on to consumers.

THE IMPACT: An expected election-year ruling will have enormous legal, political and social implications for decades to come and offer a sign of the strength and sweep of the shaky conservative-majority Roberts court.

GAY MARRIAGE: Various pending appeals from New York and California

AT ISSUE: Does a voter-approved state initiative defining marriage as only between one man and one woman violate the civil rights of same-sex couples? What happens when state or federal officials refuse to defend such laws?

THE CASE: Proposition 8 was approved in a California 2008 ballot, setting up a federal lawsuit by various gay couples seeking to wed. State leaders including current Gov. Jerry Brown have refused to defend the law in court, setting up a "gateway" debate over who can defend Proposition 8. A separate appeal deals with the Defense of Marriage Act, a congressional law barring federal recognition of same-sex marriages and mandating that states not be forced to recognize such marriages allowed in other states. President Obama ordered the Justice Department in February to cease defending the 1996 law, forcing House Republicans to pick up the legal challenge brought by homosexual individuals in New York and Connecticut.

THE ARGUMENTS: Beyond the "standing" or jurisdiction issues, the larger constitutional questions have been hotly debated in recent years. A federal judge ruled that the California initiative "fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license." But the state says such voter-approved measures should be afforded great deference by state leaders and the courts.

THE IMPACT: Same-sex marriage is currently legal in six states and in the District of Columbia, while civil unions are permitted in at least three other states. Any Supreme Court decision would quickly persuade other states and jurisdictions to act.

IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT: Arizona v. U.S.

AT ISSUE: Whether states have any authority to step in and enforce immigration matters or whether that is the exclusive role of the federal government.

THE CASE: Arizona passed SB 1070, whose provisions include the requirement local police officers should check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws. A federal judge had blocked the law from taking effect while it is under appeal. The law has sparked often-bitter protests and rallies from those on both sides of the issue.

THE ARGUMENTS: Arizona says it is the nation's busiest illegal entry point, with many people streaming in from neighboring Mexico. They argue that its citizens "bear the brunt of the problems caused by illegal immigration." The Justice Department says federal immigration policy -- as well as America's standing in the world -- would be greatly undermined if individual states adopted their own separate immigration laws.

THE IMPACT: The issue is one both sides agree requires swift Supreme Court review. In the first half of 2011, state legislatures in all 50 states and Puerto Rico introduced a record number of bills or resolutions relating to immigrants or refugees, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Through June, states had introduced 1,592 such bills or resolutions, compared with 300 in 2005.

COLLEGE AFFIRMATIVE ACTION: Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary v. Regents of the University of Michigan; Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

AT ISSUE: Do school- or voter-approved policies on "preferential treatment" at state colleges and universities unconstitutionally favor or burden racial minorities? Do race and gender preferences continue to be a socially necessary step?

THE CASE: Separate appeals from Michigan and Texas test the admissions policies at these state-sponsored schools.

THE ARGUMENTS: The current controversy was sparked by earlier Supreme Court decisions. In two cases from 2003 at the University of Michigan, the divided high court said the university's law school could give preferential treatment to minorities -- as one factor in the admissions process -- but could not set quotas or use a point system. The majority said a "narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions" could be a justified compelling interest to ensure a diverse student body.

THE IMPACT: Efforts over the past seven decades to create a diverse classroom have been controversial. The famous Brown v. Board of Education high court ruling in 1954 ended segregation of public schools but sparked nationwide protests and disobedience by states that initially refused to integrate. The issue in recent years is whether and when affirmative action programs, while constitutionally permissible now, would eventually have to be phased out as the goal of obtaining diversity is met.

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