WASHINGTON – An injury to the chief justice, an emotional discussion of racism and a rare tie vote provided some drama at the Supreme Court before its winter break, but the real action comes next year.
Justices return to work in January to take up cases including a landmark challenge to college affirmative action and a gay rights case that asks if same-sex couples can be fined for having sex.
And decisions are expected by June in several high-profile cases that the court has already debated over the past three months, including how states punish cross-burners, sex offenders and revolving-door criminals. They also considered the copyright protection of Mickey Mouse and other creations, and the trademark of Victoria's Secret in a case pitting the lingerie giant against a man named Victor who runs his own lingerie shop.
It's considered a good bet Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 78, will end his 31-year career at the court in June, when the court's term concludes.
Rehnquist, hobbled by a knee injury suffered in a fall at his home last month, missed all of December's arguments. Surgeons repaired a torn leg tendon, and Rehnquist is working at the court, just not sitting on the bench.
Already, the term has proved emotional. In one of the session's most intently watched arguments, the court considered a First Amendment test of Virginia's cross-burning law. The state prosecuted two white men who tried to set a cross on fire in the yard of black neighbors and a man who burned a large cross during a Ku Klux Klan rally. The men say cross burning is constitutionally protected free speech.
Justice Clarence Thomas, who rarely speaks, used the case to condemn a history of lynchings in the South. "This was a reign of terror, and the cross was a symbol of that reign of terror," said Thomas, the only black justice.
Among other cases the court will consider next year:
-Whether race can be a factor in college admission. At stake are race-conscious admissions policies at most top public and private colleges. The Supreme Court banned racial quotas in 1978, but allowed schools to consider race in admissions. The justices could use a case this term involving the University of Michigan to impose more limits on affirmative action.
-If public libraries that receive federal funding can be forced to install filters on computers to block sexually explicit Web sites, a case that affects more than 14 million people who use library computers. Critics say filters block Internet sites that offer helpful information about such things as health and science.
-If it's an unconstitutional for states to punish gays and lesbians for having sex, and if any couples can be penalized for privately engaging in sex acts that states deem abnormal.
Appeals also are anticipated in the next few months in challenges of a new campaign finance law and the government's post-Sept. 11 intelligence-gathering tactics. Justices could receive those in time for arguments this spring.
Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who argues often before the Supreme Court, said the justices are getting involved in a broad range of major issues.
"These cases will remind the public of the Supreme Court's immense power to shape American life," Goldstein said.
Of some 80 cases the court hears each year, so far justices have issued rulings in just a handful of cases, and most of those were settled on unanimous votes. One exception came Dec. 16 in a major wetlands protection case. Justices, on a tie vote, affirmed a decision in favor of the government.
Environmental activists had feared the court would use the case to give farmers and developers more freedom to work in environmentally sensitive areas without getting government permission first.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy knew the California developer who filed the appeal, so he sat out the case. The remaining eight justices were deadlocked.
So far, the Supreme Court has not agreed to hear any major death penalty cases. Justices will debate the visitation rights of inmates, punishments of dishonest charity telemarketers, and the forced medications of mentally ill people facing criminal trials.
Vikram David Amar, a former Supreme Court clerk and law professor at the University of California, Hastings, said the justices have jumped into some controversial cases that they could have ducked, guaranteeing an interesting spring.