Supreme Court decisions this term will indicate new justices' ideological positions

Thursday, October 12, 2006

As the Supreme Court begins its new term this week, several scheduled cases may define the new political composition of the Court, according to three University of North Texas political scientists.

Gonzales v. Carhart, which will focus on the validity of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban of Act of 2003, is expected to be the most debated case among the Court justices when it is heard in November. Dr. Kimi King, UNT associate professor of political science, says the Court's decision on this case will be significant because it will indicate how John Roberts, the Courts Chief Justice since September 2005, and new Justice Samuel Alito, who was appointed in January, "position themselves ideologically on abortion and on the precedent associated with abortion doctrine."

The case focuses on whether the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act is invalid because it doesn't include exception for performing the procedure in situations in which performing the procedure would alleviate pain and suffering. The act currently allows the procedure only if the pregnant woman's life is at risk. King says that because there is absolutely no exception for health, the ban "may be subject to an analysis like the one done in Stenberg v. Carhart just five years ago."

"If a majority of the Justices feel constrained by stare decisis - the principle of following precedent in prior cases -, the Court may be less divided than most might think," King says. "Because abortion is such a hot button issue, the Court may find a procedural way to avoid addressing the issue heads on in terms of the substantive doctrine. There is an argument to be made that the language of the partial birth abortion law could be held 'void for vagueness' because of the legislative language that does not specify the procedures to be used."

King's colleague Dr. Corey Ditslear, UNT associate professor of political science, lists four immigration-related criminal cases with broad public interest that will be heard by the Court. All four focus on the government's deportation options when crimes are committed by both legal and illegal immigrants.

"These cases will further clarify the two new justices' positions with respect to executive branch power. The Court seems to be renewing its interest in labor and employment law after about 20 years of declining cases. This may be a sign that the Court will be reducing the rights of employees and unions while increasing the discretion given to employers," Ditslear says.

He adds the Court will also hear several capital punishment cases, noting that in recent years, the Court has limited the circumstances when capital punishment is allowed.

"These new cases allow the new members of the Court to reaffirm that commitment or reverse course," he says.

Dr. Wendy Watson, UNT assistant professor of political science, agrees that the number of criminal issues on the Supreme Court docket should make this term interesting. In addition, she points to two cases that explore how the University of Michigan affirmative action decision impact race in elementary and secondary schools.

"Meredith v. Jefferson Co. Board of Ed. involves a claim that the county's race-conscious school assignment system - which was set up to address Brown v. Board of Education concerns but which results in some students spending three hours per day on a bus - violates the Equal Protection Clause," she says. "The other case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District, looks at the extent to which race can be a tie breaker in determining who gets accepted to a particular school in the context of an open-enrollment school choice program. Both cases will help define where desegregation ends and affirmative action begins."

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