The Supreme Court opens its new term Monday with a fall lineup of cases that includes how to deal with violent threats on the Internet, the role of religious liberty in prisons and whether working women who are pregnant have a right to lighter duties on the job.
Rather than split the court along sharp conservative-versus-liberal lines, these initial cases will require the justices to clarify the law where it is murky. In one colorful case involving a boat captain accused of obstructing an investigation by dumping his catch into the ocean, the justices will debate whether dead fish can be treated as the legal equivalent of shredded documents.
The major ideological conflicts are waiting just offstage, however. Later in the term the court is likely to take up a same-sex marriage case and decide whether states must give gay couples an equal right to marry.
The partisan divide over voting rules has also reached the high court in emergency appeals from Wisconsin and North Carolina. The justices will decide in the next week or two whether these Republican-led states may enforce new rules in this year's election.
Wisconsin wants to require its registered voters to show a current, government-issued photo identification card, even though critics warn it might bar thousands from casting a ballot. The law was cleared to take effect by a divided federal appeals court in Chicago, but civil rights lawyers lodged an emergency appeal before the high court.
In North Carolina, by contrast, a federal appeals court blocked new rules that ended same-day registration and barred the counting of ballots cast in the wrong precinct. The judges, both Obama appointees, said these changes would violate the Voting Rights Act and discriminate against African Americans. The state's lawyers filed an emergency appeal last week asking the justices to revive the rule changes.
The abortion issue could also return to the court later in the term. Arizona wants to enforce a law that limits when women can use drugs to end an early pregnancy, but the law was blocked by a federal appeals court in California.
Last week, Texas won an appeals court ruling that allows it to enforce a strict regulatory law that shut down most of the state's abortion clinics. The law said these clinics must meet all the standards of an "ambulatory surgical center" and their doctors must have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. The combined rules forced most of the clinics to close, except those in Houston, Dallas, Fort Worth, Austin and San Antonio.
More than 20 years ago, the Supreme Court said states may regulate the practice of abortion, but may not put an "undue burden" on women seeking to end a pregnancy. The justices could take up the Texas or Arizona case to decide on how far states may go in regulating abortions.
Other highlights of cases to be heard in the coming weeks include:
Religion and prisons: Does a Muslim prisoner have a right to grow a beard? Arkansas prison authorities said no, contending inmates can hide dangerous objects in a beard. But most prisons do not enforce a no-beard rule. Conservatives and liberals support the inmate's religious-liberty claim, and the justices are likely to do so as well. (Holt vs. Hobbs, Oct. 7)
Teeth whitening: Can a state board made up of dentists forbid kiosks in shopping malls from offering consumers low-cost teeth whitening? The
Israeli passports: Does an American child born in Jerusalem have a right to have "Israel" listed as his place of birth on his U.S. passport? This question has divided
Undersized fish: Does the obstruction-of-justice law that forbids destroying documents or "any tangible object" include small red grouper? John Yates, a boat captain in Florida, was accused by a federal agent of having illegally caught grouper that were less than 20 inches long. But before returning to shore, he dumped the small fish and was then charged with obstruction of justice. His appeal claims the post-Enron law known as Sarbanes-Oxley intended to cover shredded documents, not dead fish. (Yates vs. U.S., Nov. 5)
Racial gerrymander: Did Alabama's Republican-led Legislature violate the Constitution's guarantee of the "equal protection of the laws" when it moved 120,000 black residents into already majority-black election districts? Black lawmakers and Alabama Democrats said this "racial gerrymandering" would dilute the voting strength of the state's black residents. The case calls on the court to consider again whether state officials may use race in drawing election districts. (Alabama Legislative Black Caucus vs. Alabama, Nov. 12)
Threats and free speech: Does a Facebook poster have a right to rant about his ex-wife and imagine the "ways to kill you," including to "dump your body" in a creek and "make it look like a rape and murder"? It is a crime to transmit "any threat" to injure another person, and Anthony Elonis was convicted because a reasonable person would see his rant as a threat. But the court will hear his free-speech claim that the government must prove he intended to threaten her. (Elonis vs. United States, Dec. 1)
Pregnancy discrimination: Must employers make special accommodations for pregnant employees? Federal law forbids discrimination based on pregnancy and says these women "shall be treated the same" as other employees.