Federal Courts and Nominations

Sotomayor’s impact on trial as high court returns to work


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court begins its new term Monday with high-profile disputes over gun rights, animal cruelty and life in prison for juvenile offenders. New Justice Sonia Sotomayor debuts in her first term, and a looming question is how she might change the dynamics on this ideologically divided court.

In its first week, the court will consider a separation-of-church-and-state challenge to a Christian cross erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars in the Mojave National Preserve in California. It will also look at whether government can ban depictions of dogfighting and animal cruelty as a way to staunch animal torture.

Sotomayor, who is the first Hispanic justice and second woman on the current bench, succeeded Justice David Souter after he retired this summer. She already is taking a more public role than her reclusive predecessor: She threw out the first pitch at a Yankees-Red Sox game last week.

Overall, the court led by Chief Justice John Roberts is in transition and could continue flexing its conservative muscles. Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito are relative newcomers: Roberts joined in 2005 to succeed Chief Justice William Rehnquist after his death from cancer; Alito came on when Sandra Day O’Connor retired in 2006.

“I think this term is going to be a tremendous test of conservatives,” says Doug Kendall of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal think tank and law firm. “The substitution of Justice Alito for Justice O’Connor significantly moved the court’s center of gravity in a way that the most recent change did not.” If Sotomayor’s votes in past rulings are a guide, she is of the same liberal bent as Souter.

“We have a relatively new court,” says Robin Conrad of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s litigation unit. “We also have a new solicitor general,” the U.S. government’s top lawyer at the court. “This is a term to watch from two perspectives: What does the new justice add, and is there a substantive difference (between) administrations?”

For the previous eight years, Bush administration top lawyers urged the court to adopt generally conservative opinions. New Solicitor General Elena Kagan— appointed by President Obama and now at the start of her first full term — is likely to begin modifying some government stances.

The Supreme Court could witness more changes in the near future. Justice John Paul Stevens, the eldest and longest-serving of the nine justices, will turn 90 in April. He has not hired the usual number of law clerks for the term that would follow this 2009-10 session.

If Stevens, appointed by Gerald Ford in 1975 and now leader of the liberal wing, retires, a successor appointed by Obama would not likely change the court’s ideological cast. But it could alter the chemistry among the justices. Stevens has succeeded in wooing swing-vote Justice Anthony Kennedy to the left in some cases, such as those against Bush detention policies.

Roberts, 54, leads the conservative wing of Antonin Scalia, 73, Clarence Thomas, 61, Samuel Alito, 59, and, often, Kennedy, 73. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, 76, and Stephen Breyer, 71, usually join Stevens on the left.

Sotomayor, 55, is the first Democratic appointee since 1994 and only the third since the 1960s. In recent decades, the court has been on a slow march in a conservative direction.

Among this term’s cases that could test that ideological slant is one on whether the Second Amendment right to own firearms applies to state laws and city regulations.

In a major dispute over federal campaign-finance rules, heard last month in a special session, Roberts and other conservatives appeared poised to overturn past decisions by liberal-leaning majorities allowing limits on corporate spending for candidates.

The next nine months will show whether the conservative majority can prevail there and in other closely watched cases. None of the conservatives appears ready to step down: Their average age is about 10 years younger than that of the liberal bloc.

For now, the newest justice is drawing the most attention. “Judging from her life experience and record,” says Georgetown University law professor Susan Low Bloch, “we can expect Justice Sotomayor to be a lively questioner and a careful, empathetic judge — who also will be closely watched.”


This article can be found in its original form here.


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