WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court is set to begin a term that could lead to enhanced rights for terrorism detainees, a ruling against part of a child pornography law and shorter prison terms for crack cocaine dealers.
Whatever happened to the court's march to the right?
The answer, it seems safe to say, is that little has changed on the bench, where Justice Anthony Kennedy remains the decisive vote between four conservatives and four liberals.
The difference with the term that begins Monday is the mix of cases that are before the justices. Instead of last term's defining cases — abortion, race and campaign finance — in which Kennedy's views aligned him with the conservatives, the big issues are those on which Kennedy has more often sided with the liberals.
The court has become more conservative since Sandra Day O'Connor retired in 2006 and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito.
Looking ahead to this term's lineup of cases, "I can't identify a significant win for conservatives," said Thomas Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who writes about the court and argues before it.
The justices are set to tackle an array of big issues. They include the legal rights of Guantanamo detainees, the constitutionality of lethal injections for executions, photo identification cards for voters and investors' struggle to find accountability in cases of fraud.
The court could add a blockbuster case to its calendar if the justices opt to take a Second Amendment case from Washington, D.C., that would test limits on the right to own guns.
The third year of Chief Justice John Roberts' tenure follows a contentious term that laid bare ideological divisions in a large number of cases decided by one vote. The frustrations of liberal justices bubbled up in dissents read aloud in the courtroom. Among them was one read on the final day by Justice Stephen Breyer, who said of his conservative colleagues: "So few have so quickly changed so much."
While there could well be many more 5-4 decisions this term, a frequent participant in cases at the high court doubts that relations among the justices will be as frayed.
"I don't think we'll have anything like that this term," said Carter Phillips, a lawyer with the Sidley Austin firm who has argued 54 cases before the justices. "It's pretty clear that last year was a bruising term for the justices. They were pretty happy to get away from each other."
Roberts, 52, suffered a health setback during the summer when he had a seizure on a dock in Maine, the second such episode in 14 years. He has resumed his public schedule and has said nothing more about his health, including whether he is taking medication to prevent another seizure.
Monday's opening session also coincides with the official release of Justice Clarence Thomas' long-awaited memoir "My Grandfather's Son." The book is Thomas' look back at his life from childhood in Georgia to his bitter confirmation battle that included testimony from former employee Anita Hill that Thomas sexually harassed her.
On the court's calendar, the headline case so far involves the legal rights of Guantanamo detainees. The justices twice before have ruled that suspected terrorists held at the U.S. naval base in Cuba could pursue challenges to their indefinite confinement in U.S. civilian courts.
Each time, the Bush administration and Congress, then under Republican control, have changed the law to try to limit the detainees' rights.
"This is the most generous set of procedures ever afforded to a nation's military adversaries in the history of the world. They are, however, far short of what would be afforded a U.S. citizen caught up in the civilian justice system," said Brad Berenson, who served under Bush in the White House counsel's office.
Kennedy voted with the court's liberals in both earlier cases; many scholars expect him to do so again.
The Guantanamo case is the only national security matter the court has yet agreed to review. But related administration policies, including warrantless wiretapping and the claim that state secrets could be revealed if some court cases are allowed to go forward, also could make it to the high court this term.
In their first week, the justices will hear arguments involving the disparate prison terms given people convicted of crimes involving crack versus powder cocaine.
At the end of the month, the government will ask the justices to overturn an appeals court ruling that struck down a provision of the main federal law against child pornography. The lower court said the portion in question criminalizes merely talking about illegal images.
Another closely watched case is a challenge to Kentucky's lethal injection procedures. The court blocked a Texas inmate's lethal injection execution last week, indicating that the Kentucky case could produce a broad statement about a widely used method of execution.
The court also will wade into electoral politics in a few cases. The most notable involves the requirement that voters produce photo identification to cast a ballot.
The issue has a sharp partisan edge. Republicans are pushing voter ID laws as a way to reduce fraud. Democrats say those laws are intended to discourage poor, minority and older voters who tend to vote for Democrats. The case almost certainly will be decided before next year's general election.
There is no indication that any justice intends to step down before the 2008 presidential election, although there is much speculation that the next president could have several vacancies to fill.
In addition to Roberts, two other justices are in their 50s. Six are 68 or older and the senior man among them, John Paul Stevens, is 87.
As long as the current lineup holds, Kennedy, 71, will continue to be the key vote.