Big cases await Supreme Court's 2012-13 term

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court producer

There are 39 appeals on the high court's schedule. As many as three dozen more are expected to be added in coming months. Other controversial appeals that may yet be added to the high court's docket cover issues relate to voting rights enforcement, voter identification laws, same-sex marriage rights, and "personhood" laws for the unborn.

Affirmative action

Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin

This case is already on the docket.

At issue

A challenge to the school's race-conscious admissions policies.

The case

Abigail Fisher individually sued the flagship state university after her college application was rejected in 2008 when she was a high school senior in Sugar Land, Texas.

The arguments

Fisher claims being turned away in part because she is white. The school defends its policy of considering race as one of many factors -- such as test scores, community service, leadership and work experience -- designed to ensure a diverse campus.

The impact

The court's most closely watched pre-election case this term, it raises anew thorny, unresolved questions over race and remedies. Justice Kagan will not hear this case because she had dealt with the issue while serving as President Barack Obama's solicitor general. That would leave the possibility of a 4-4 tie, meaning the university would prevail, but no important precedent would be established.

National security

Clapper v. Amnesty International USA

This case is already on the docket.

At issue

Standing question over the constitutionality of the federal government's electronic monitoring of targeted foreigners suspected of terrorism or spying. Can domestic plaintiffs who deal with overseas clients and co-workers file suit if they reasonably fear the government was reading and hearing their sensitive communications?

The case

Congress revised the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 2008 to give the attorney general and the director of national intelligence greater authority to order "mass acquisition" of electronic traffic from suspected foreign terrorists or spies. The law previously required the government to justify a national security interest before any monitoring of phone calls and emails originating in another country. A federal judge had to sign any search warrant.

The arguments

The larger issue involves the constitutionality of the federal government's electronic monitoring of targeted foreigners. A federal appeals court ruled against the Obama administration. The specific question now to be addressed is whether certain Americans have "standing" to challenge the federal law without a specific showing they have been monitored. Plaintiffs say the National Security Agency has in turn refused to disclose specifics. The ACLU calls that "Catch-22" logic.

The impact

Privacy groups worry that such electronic dragnets could easily and unknowingly intrude on the privacy rights of U.S. citizens. The government calls that "speculation" but cites national security in refusing to provide specifics.

Human rights

Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., Inc.

This case is already on the docket.

At issue

When federal courts can hear claims by foreign nationals of international law violations.

The case

More than a dozen individuals seek to hold major oil companies liable for human rights violations in Nigeria in the 1990s. The 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute that has been increasingly used in recent years to sue corporations and political groups for alleged abuses abroad. The plaintiffs allege the oil giants conspired with the government to stop protests over petroleum exploration, using killings, rape, arrests, and property destruction. Shell has denied giving soldiers any money, supplies, or logistical help.

The arguments

The high court in 2004 endorsed use of the ATS, but only in limited circumstances. The Kiobel case had originally been argued at the high court in February, revealing an ideological split on the bench. The case was ordered re-heard with a different focus on the law's limits: whether it can be applied extraterritorially for violations occurring overseas.

The impact

A Supreme Court decision against the plaintiffs could effectively end ATS litigation. Similar lawsuits involve Chevron and Exxon energy operations in Indonesia; Chiquita Brand fruit farms in Colombia; and businesses that operated years ago in the now-outlawed apartheid system in South Africa.

Same-sex marriage

Defense of Marriage Act: Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group of the U.S. House of Representatives v. Gill; Dept. of Health and Human Services v. Massachusetts; Office of Personnel Management v. Golinski; Windsor v. U.S.

These cases may be added to the Supreme Court docket in coming months.

At issue

Whether the federal Defense of Marriage Act violates equal protection guarantees in the Fifth Amendment's Due Process Clause, as applied to same-sex couples legally married under the laws of their own state.

The cases

Appeals from Massachusetts, New York, California, and elsewhere are pending. The law known as DOMA defines marriage for federal purposes as unions exclusively between a man and woman. The legal issue is whether the federal government can deny tax, health, and pension benefits to same-sex couples in states where they can legally marry. A federal appeals court in Boston struck down the benefits provision, saying, "If we are right in thinking that disparate impact on minority interests and federalism concerns both require somewhat more in this case than almost automatic deference to Congress' will, this statute fails that test."

The arguments

The First Circuit court did not rule on the federal law's other key provision: states that do not allow same-sex marriages cannot be forced to recognize such unions performed in other states. Traditionally, marriages in one jurisdiction are considered valid across the country.

The impact

The Obama administration in a rare move has refused to defend a federal law in court. That left the GOP-controlled House of Representatives to file the legal appeals to the high court.

California ballot measure: Hollingsworth v. Perry

This case may be added to the Supreme Court docket in coming months.

At issue

Whether the Constitution's 14th Amendment guarantee of "equal protection" prevents states from defining marriage as only between one man and one woman.

The case

The "Prop 8" case, as it has become known, has been down a complicated legal road. California's Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriages were legal in 2008. After the statewide ballot measure banning them passed with 52% of the vote later that year, gay and lesbian marriages were put on hold. Then a federal appeals court in San Francisco in February ruled the measure unconstitutional. In its split decision, the panel found Proposition 8 "works a meaningful harm to gays and lesbians" by denying their right to civil marriage.

The arguments

California is the only state that accepted, then revoked, same-sex marriage as a legal right. The measure's supporters asked the justices to preserve the will of the voters in this politically-charged social issue. Opponents of Prop 8 seek a court-ordered expansion of the "traditional" views of marriage.

The impact

Currently, same-sex marriage is legal in six states: Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire and New York, along with the District of Columbia. Washington, Maryland, and New Jersey voted earlier this year to allow same-sex marriages, but the laws have not yet taken effect.

Another nine states recognize civil unions or broad domestic partnership, providing state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples. President Barack Obama, who previously opposed same-sex marriage, said in June he now supports it.

Voting rights

Shelby County, AL v. Holder; Nix v. Holder

These cases may be added to the Supreme Court docket in coming months.

At issue

Continued use by the federal government of the key enforcement provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The case

Section 5 gives federal authorities open-ended oversight of states and localities with a history of voter discrimination. Any changes in voting laws and procedures in the covered states must be "pre-cleared" with Washington.

The arguments

The provision was reauthorized in 2006 for another quarter-century, and counties in Alabama and North Carolina subsequently filed suit, saying the monitoring was overly burdensome and unwarranted. All or parts of 16 states are currently covered under the provision. Other states are not covered by the provision even if they, too, might discriminate against minority voters.

In a separate high court case from three years ago, the conservative majority suggested -- but never fully affirmed -- that continued use of Section 5 may soon be nullified. "Things have changed in the South. Voter turnout and registration rates now approach parity," Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in 2009. "Past success alone, however is not adequate justification to retain the pre-clearance requirements. The Act imposes current burdens and must be justified by current needs."

The impact

A high court decision whether to accept these appeals for a full review will likely come in a presidential election year that incorporates newly redrawn voting boundaries, based on the updated census.

Abortion rights

Oklahoma v. Barber

This case may be added to the Supreme Court docket in coming months.

At issue

Constitutionality of state "personhood" laws saying life begins at conception, and giving human embryos the rights and privileges of citizens.

The case

Initiative Petition 395 is a proposed ballot measure to amend the state constitution, but was unanimously struck down by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. The state justices said the measure, if approved, would unconstitutionally ban access to abortions, and concluded that defining a fertilized human egg as a person "is clearly unconstitutional."

The arguments

Supporters of the measure say voters should be given the right to decide a critical issue like defining life, and said it was unfair for the courts to block the law before it was enacted. Opponents counter it would essentially block abortions even in case of rape, incest, or when the mother's life was in danger. They also say it would severely restrict use of contraception and in vitro fertilization.

The impact

A bill similar to Oklahoma's is pending in Virginia's state legislature. Voters in Colorado and Mississippi have rejected "personhood" ballot initiatives in recent years. Many of its backers hope to use "personhood" measures to force another Supreme Court showdown over the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling legalizing abortions.