Outlined below are some key cases the Supreme Court is scheduled to tackle in its 2013-14 term, which starts Monday.
Forty-eight appeals are currently on the docket. As many as three dozen more are expected to be added in coming months. The caseload for the term is usually settled by February, with the term effectively ending in late June.
Other important appeals that may yet be added cover such issues as gun rights, abortion regulation, cell phone privacy, as well as further litigation over President Barack Obama's health care reform law.
Cases on the court's docket
Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action
At issue: Whether a state violates the Equal Protection Clause by amending its constitution to prohibit race- and sex-based discrimination or preferential treatment in public-university admission decisions.
The case: Michigan's Proposition 2 was approved by voters seven years ago with 58 percent support. A federal appeals court later tossed the initiative, concluding it "distorts the political process and imposes a burden based on race that violates" the federal Constitution.
The arguments: The high court this past term considered a similar case from the University of Texas, which in some ways present mirror issues. A white student said a college's existing affirmative action policy violated her "equal protection" rights, while civil rights supporters of such programs claim Michigan's ban also has the same effect. The high court in the Texas petition made it harder to use affirmative action in the future, while not totally eliminating its use.
The impact: The court's most closely watched current case this term, it raises a new thorny, unresolved questions over race and remedies. Justice Kagan will not hear this case, leaving the possibility of a 4-4 high court tie and no important precedent being established.
McCutcheon v. FEC
At issue: Constitutionality of a two-year ceiling on individual campaign donations to federal candidates and political committees.
The case: The appeal comes from Alabama businessman and donor Shaun McCutcheon, supported in court by the Republican National Committee.
The arguments: They object to a 1970s-era law restricting someone from giving no more than $48,600 to federal candidates, and $74,600 to political action committees, during a two-year election cycle. McCutcheon says he has a constitutional right to donate over that amount to as many candidates as he wants, so long as no one candidate gets more than the current $2600 limit. But the law's supporters worry millions of dollars could easily be funneled by a single well-heeled donor to his or her party and candidates of choice, reviving a system of "legalized bribery."
The impact: A ruling by spring could have immediate impact on the mid-term elections, and further erode congressional efforts to regulate aggregate federal campaign money limits.
CHURCH & STATE
Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway
At issue: Public prayer in town meetings.
The case: The Town Board of this Rochester suburb had long opened its monthly public sessions with individual prayers. The policy was challenged because virtually all of those invited to offer prayers were Christians, so the board for a time asked a few others-- including a Wiccan, Baha'i leader, and Jewish lay person-- to offer invocations. But local citizens Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens nevertheless sued.
The arguments: A federal appeals court found the practice an unconstitutional mix of church and state, and that local officials were not diligent enough seeking more diverse voices from other faiths. But local officials call it highly inclusive, and say civic prayers have long been permitted nationwide.
The impact: Few issues draw as much controversy as those approaching the intersection of faith and the public arena. The Supreme Court has taken a case-by-case approach to Establishment Clause appeals, but generally upholds the discretion of government bodies to acknowledge America's religious heritage-- whether in Christmas displays, Ten Commandment monuments, or legislative prayers.
NLRB v. Noel Canning
At issue: The validity of President Obama's recess appointments to a federal agency.
The case: A U.S. appeals panel concluded three people named to the NLRB lacked authority, because the presidential appointments were made while the Senate was technically in a "pro forma" session during the winter holiday break. That Board had ruled on a Washington state labor dispute, but the canning company filing suit claims the panel's members did not have a proper quorum.
The arguments: Republican and Democratic lawmakers in the past have used the "virtual Congress" tactic to block unilateral appointments by the president when the Senate is away. But GOP leaders here claimed the Obama appointments to the board created a panel that was overly pro-union, and an eventual high court ruling could invalidate hundreds of findings issued over the past two years.
The impact: The case sets up a high-stakes Supreme Court fight between the other two branches of government. What the justices decide could also put in jeopardy the recess appointment of Richard Cordray, who heads the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, a move also being challenged in a separate lawsuit.
Cases that might be added
HEALTH CARE REFORM
Liberty University v. Lew; Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.; Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius.
At issue: A provision in the new healthcare reform law requiring companies and institutions of a certain size to provide insurance coverage for birth control and other reproductive health services without a co-pay. Can private employers refuse on the claim it violates their religious freedoms?
The case: Appeals by a Christian university in Virginia, an Oklahoma-based retail chain, and a Mennonite family-owned for-profit company. The petitions also make larger arguments in opposing other provisions of the Affordable Care Act, championed by President Obama. These are among more than six dozen separate legal challenges to nearly every aspect of the healthcare law, including the "employer mandate" to provide a minimum level of health insurance for their workers, or pay a federal penalty.
The arguments: The high court in 2012 narrowly upheld the law's key funding section-- the "individual mandate," requiring most Americans to purchase health insurance or face a financial penalty. That ruling allowed other parts of the law to go into effect, but also allowed those pending lawsuits over its application to proceed.
The impact: These cases are coming to high court attention as conservative lawmakers in Congress seek to eliminate or severely eviscerate the ACA.
National Rifle Association v. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives
At issue: Appeal of a federal law banning sales of handguns to minors by licensed firearms dealers.
The case: Two 19-year-old individuals are part of the original lawsuit brought. A federal appeals court in New Orleans had upheld the law, saying "Congress designed its scheme to solve a particular problem: violent crime associated with the trafficking of handguns from federal firearms licensees to young adult." The ruling does not apply to licensed sales of long rifles, or private handgun sales or gifts to minors.
The arguments: The NRA says those age 18-20 are unfairly being singled out, while the court said Congress took a "calibrated, compromise" approach.
The impact: This could be one of the biggest Second Amendment legal challenges since the high court upheld an individual right to possess handgun for self-protection. It would further test the acceptable constitutional limits of state and national governments to pass "sensible" gun control legislation.
Cline v. Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice
State discretion to limit or ban abortions performed with medicine, instead of surgery.
The case: An Oklahoma state law regulates the ability of doctors to prescribe a medication regime (the so-called RU-486 pills) to terminate early pregnancies. The law makes it a crime to deviate from the FDA-approved dosage and time limits of the drugs. But many physicians-- backed by abortion rights supporters-- say they routinely induce medical abortions through a combination of drugs they safer is simpler, safer, and less expensive.
The arguments: The high court has formally added this case to its docket, but put things on hold while it seeks procedural answers from lower state courts. This petition is the first of several restrictive abortion laws nationwide to get review by the justices.
The impact: The justices have already agreed to review a separate appeal: a free-speech challenge by anti-abortion protesters to a Massachusetts law permitting buffer or exclusion zones around facilities that perform abortions.
U.S. v. Wurie and Riley v. California
AT ISSUE: Separate appeals over whether police must obtain a warrant to search data on the cellphone of a person under arrest.
The cases: Criminal suspects in Massachusetts and California were convicted, in part after phone numbers, text messages, and addresses obtained from personal electronic devices linked them to criminal drug and gang activity.
The arguments: The Supreme Court has issued mixed privacy rulings in the past two years: allowing criminal suspects to be DNA-tested upon arrest yet before conviction, to help solve "cold" cases; but saying in most cases, search warrants are needed before GPS electronic surveillance of vehicles, or blood tests for suspected drunk drivers.
The impact: Chief Justice John Roberts recently said his court's biggest challenge in coming years will be to articulate what constitutional protections "apply to new issues and new technology."
Also: In Re Electronic Privacy Information Center (13-58) - A direct challenge to the National Security Agency's surveillance of domestic telephone communication records. A privacy rights group claims a secret federal court improperly authorized the government to collect the electronic records. The court for a variety of procedural and substantive reasons is unlikely to accept the case at this time, perhaps waiting for it to percolate in the lower courts.
Elane Photography, LLC v. Willock
At issue: Whether private businesses can refuse-- on personal religious grounds-- to offer services typically available to the general public.
The case: The owners of a small Albuquerque photography studio refused to film a 2006 commitment ceremony involving a lesbian couple, saying it went against their Christian beliefs of "traditional marriage" between one man and one woman. The state supreme court concluded that violated New Mexico's Human Rights Act.
The arguments: Competing debate over religious freedom versus "public accommodation" discrimination of homosexuals. Although some of New Mexico's counties have recently issued marriage licenses for same-sex couples, the state as a whole neither allows, nor bans it.
The impact: This could be the latest constitutional test of gay rights, after the Supreme Court in June struck down a key part of the Defense of Marriage Act, which had denied a range of federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples. The legal debate now shifts back to state laws.