Supreme Court Session Starts Today: Three Issues to Watch 

The Justices are taking on a heavy load of cases including affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.

he U.S. Supreme Court starts its new session today and it is shaping up to be as controversial as the last term that saw the court uphold President Obama's health care overhaul.

In a term that stretches through June, the nine justices will be tackling issues that will have a huge impact on how we judge fairness and equality in the American system.

Mixed in to cases involving drug-sniffing dogs, death row inmates and overseas human rights abuses there are three big issues to watch.

Affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights are all on the docket and court watchers are gearing up for an exciting season.

"The court can pretty much do whatever it wants, when it puts its mind to it," Paul Clement, former solicitor general during the George W. Bush administration told the Detroit Free Press.

"The court can move mountains."

Let's take a look at what mountains it might move:


In Fisher v. University of Texas, (opening arguments start Oct. 10) the court will decide whether the University of Texas put too much emphasis on racial preference in selecting their freshman class.

The court's decision could spell a major setback for the use of racial preference to achieve diversity on the nation's college campuses.

The case arrived at the top court after a white high school student, Abigail Fisher, said she was rejected from the University of Texas in 2008 based on her race, reports the Detroit Free Press.

Roughly three quarters of seats in the university's freshman classes are reserved for graduates in the top 10 percent of their high school class. After that 10 percent is selected, the University uses several factors, including race, to fill out the remaining seats, according to USA Today.

Fisher's lawsuit says in part that that the "Top 10 Percent Law" produced a race-neutral policy that already made the University of Texas one of the most diverse public universities in the nation, reports ABC.

The university should not have combined that policy with one that considers race, her lawyers contended. The university says that race is only one of many factors and is not the emphasis of the admissions decision.

Court watchers expect a narrow decision siding with Fisher now that the dynamics of the Supreme Court have changed.

Back in 2003, the court upheld the use of race in the University of Michigan Law School's admissions policy. The 5-4 decision was written by the moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor who retired in 2006 and was replaced by the more conservative Republican appointee Samuel Alito.

Alito has consistently voted against race-conscious decision making by the government, reports the New York Times.

According to AP, Chief Justice John Roberts has also been a vocal critic of using race to draw legislative districts. He called it "a sordid business, this divvying us up by race," and in assigning students to public schools, saying that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

Justice Elena Kagan, who previously dealt with the case as solicitor general in the Obama administration, has recused herself from Fisher vs. University of Texas.

Without Kagan, it will be difficult for the university to get more than four votes, making it unlikely to win the case.


Several federal courts have decided that provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the 1996 law that denies benefits to same sex couples and defines marriage as between a man and a woman, are unconstitutional and it's likely the Supreme Court is going to weigh in this term.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told a group of university students last month that she expects the Supreme Court to hear challenges to DOMA.

"I think it's most likely that we will have that issue before the court toward the end of the current term," she said.

The Supreme Court has been asked to hear five different challenges to the law that have been decided in lower courts, Brian Moulton, legal director of Human Rights Campaign, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender rights, told NBC.

Lower courts ruled that the federal government may not deny equal benefits to same-sex couples who were married in states that allow gay marriage, such as Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Since it's passing in 1996, states including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Iowa, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland, Washington state and the District of Columbia have passed their own versions of gay marriage.

The Maryland and Washington laws are on hold until referendums on the November ballot.

The court is also likely to take a look at California's Proposition 8, the voter-approved amendment to the state's Constitution that restricted marriage to one man and one woman.

California originally approved gay marriage in June 2008 but a voter amendment ended it just five months later.

In February, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals struck down Proposition 8 in a 2-1 decision. According to the Los Angeles Times, Judge Stephen Reinhardt said the proposition violated the Constitution by removing the right to marry after it had already been granted.

The Supreme Court is likely to hear an appeal by supporters of Proposition 8, Hollingsworth vs. Perry, in conjunction with the DOMA cases in November.


Several lower court appeals are asking the Supreme Court to overrule a landmark piece of civil rights legislation that protects citizens right to vote.

A provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requires all or parts of 16 states with a history of racial discrimination to get approval from the Justice Department or a special court before making any changes that affect voting or elections, reports AP.

In 2006, Congress and then-President George W. Bush approved legislation extending the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years, reports Fox News.

Three years later, the court spoke skeptically about the provision in a 2009 decision, but left it mostly unchanged.

"We are now a very different nation” than the one that first enacted the Voting Rights Act, Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “Whether conditions continue to justify such legislation is a difficult constitutional question we do not answer today.”

Justice Roberts implied that Congress should step in and revisit the law but they haven't made any changes so far.

Critics argue that the law is no longer necessary and even if some states are still prone to racial discrimination they almost certainly aren't the same ones as in 1965, reports USA Today.

The Daily Beast notes that "whether the recent wave of voter-identification laws that promise to disenfranchise many poor and racial-minority voters causes the court to think twice about whether the ballot box is now free from discrimination remains to be seen."

The Voting Rights Act challenge may not make its way to the court in time to affect the Presidential election.

Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school told AP that an Ohio lawsuit over early voting and provisional ballots is the most likely to appear before the justices before November 6th.

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