Caseload in new Supreme Court term will focus on voter rights, detainment of foreign nationals

Monday, October 1, 2007

During the 2007-08 Supreme Court term opening next week, three significant issues will be discussed by the justices - the detainment of foreign nationals in the wake of the war on terrorism, the constitutionality of processes in which candidates for elections are selected, and the constitutionality of lethal injection as capital punishment, according to Dr. Paul Collins, University of North Texas assistant professor of political science.

Collins says two cases that the Court will hear focus on the association rights of political parties versus the rights of voters and candidates to have access to the political system. New York Board of Election v. Torres will determine if New York State's convention election system for Supreme Court justices, which involves two major political parties selecting candidates at nominating conventions, violates the rights of voters to choose their own candidates.

In Washington State Grange v. Washington State Republican Party, the Court will examine the state's system of placing the top two candidates who have received the most votes in a primary on the general election ballot, regardless of the candidates' party affiliation. The initiative, which was proposed by the Grange in 2004, was overwhelmingly approved by voters, but it was quickly challenged by state political parties because it allows primary candidates to list their own party preference.

"If you want to run for office, you can just run on the party's name, even if you're not registered with that party," Collins says.

The cases focusing on the detainment of foreignnationals include Boumediene and Al Odah v. Bush and the United States, which addresses the provision of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 that does not give detainees housed at Guantanamo Bay the right to have their habeas corpus petitions heard by U.S. federal courts. The second case, Medellin v. Texas, focuses on a Texas state court ruling against the Bush Administration's power to ensure that state courts complied with the international tribunal's decision on the rights of foreign nationals arrested and prosecuted within the U.S. for crimes here.

"This is the first term in a while that the Court will be dealing with international issues. It speaks to the increasingly globalized U.S. society," Collins says.

In the capital punishment case, Baze v. Rees, the Court will determine if lethal injection - the most commonly used means to administer the death penalty - violates the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on the use of cruel and unusual punishment. The case stems from a lawsuit brought by two inmates in 2004, who argued that the three-drug cocktail used to administer the death penalty is cruel and unusual since prisoners can undergo agonizing pain if they are not given enough anesthetic, without being able to voice their discomfort as a result of the muscle paralyzer.

"This case is sure to be a significant decision and, if the justices strike down the use of lethal injection, the decision will have broad repercussions on the 37 states that rely on this method to administer the death penalty," Collin says. "Moreover, while the case does not deal with the constitutionality of the death penalty per se, it is sure to illuminate the individual justices' positions on capital punishment."

Collins says observers of the Supreme Court's political ideology will be watching "to see how far the court will move to the political right."

This year's term is only the secondfor all of the current justices, which include Associate Justice SamuelAlito, appointed in January 2006, and Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed in September 2005. The two justices have shifted the ideology of the Court to more conservative than in the past.

"Last year, 60 percent of the decisions were conservative in direction," Collins says. "And last year, the Court decided the smallest number of cases during the last 50 years. It will be interesting to see whether or not these trends continue."

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