September 30, 2001 06:36am
Internet Porn on New Supreme Court Agenda
by: James Vicini
(WASHINGTON) -- The U.S. Supreme Court will begin its new term on Monday, deciding important issues such as Internet pornography, executing the mentally retarded, using public money to pay religious school tuition and programs to help minorities.
After their summer recess, the justices return to the bench for their 2001-2002 term that for the time being has been overshadowed by the Sept. 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon (news - web sites) that left more than 6,000 people dead or missing.
The court has increased security since the hijacked plane attacks. But it will be business as usual on Monday as the justices begin issuing orders in nearly 2,000 cases that piled up over the past three months and hear oral arguments.
Legal experts said many of the cases before the court involved fundamental constitutional principles and will significantly affect public policy on a range of issues, where the justices have been closely divided.
``Constitutional liberties are coming up for some close votes,'' said Ralph Neas of the liberal group, People For the American Way Foundation.
COURT'S POWERFUL IMPACT
``These cases should remind Americans of the importance of the Supreme Court and of the powerful impact that will be made by future appointments,'' he said, noting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor (news - web sites) will play a pivotal role on the court split between conservative and liberal factions.
One of the most closely watched cases involves whether it violates church-state separation to use public money to pay for children to attend religious schools.
The justices announced on Tuesday they will rule on so-called school vouchers, which President Bush (news - web sites) has endorsed. The ruling could affect Bush's faith-based initiative with public funds going to religious charities.
The court also will decide two cases involving Internet pornography, and constitutional free-speech protections.
In one case, the justices will consider the government's appeal aimed at allowing it to enforce a 1998 law intended to protect minors from online pornography.
The Child Online Protection Act, adopted by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998, would require commercial site operators on the World Wide Web to impose electronic proof-of-age systems before allowing Internet users to view material deemed harmful to minors.
The other case involves whether it violates free-speech rights to extend the reach of a federal child pornography law to computer-generated images that do not involve real children.
The death penalty case from Virginia involves whether executing mentally retarded people convicted of capital crimes should be struck down as unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment.
Taking up its first affirmative action dispute since 1995, the court will decide whether to uphold a federal highway construction program that favors minority and disadvantaged businesses.
FAMILIAR ISSUES ON DOCKET
``After a summer in which many had predicted at least one retirement, the Supreme Court returns this fall with its membership intact and a series of familiar issues on its docket,'' said Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Legal experts said they do not expect any retirements, assuming the justices remain in good health, at least until the end of the term in June.
O'Connor and Justice Anthony Kennedy, both of whom were named to the bench in the 1980s by Republican President Ronald Reagan, have emerged as two moderate conservatives who often determine the outcome of key cases.
Legal experts said the court's staunchest conservatives include Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was elevated to his current post by Reagan in 1986, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, both named by Republican presidents.
They said the court's most liberal members are Justices John Paul Stevens and David Souter, both named by Republican presidents, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both named by Clinton, a Democrat.
The court's last term ended on June 28, and was best known for the historic 5-4 ruling in December that halted any more vote recounts in the disputed Florida presidential election, effectively giving Bush the presidency over Al Gore.