Big battles over terrorism, security await Supreme Court

Sunday, February 1, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Sometimes the work of the Supreme Court befits the court's image as a stolid place. Quiet, plodding, even boring.

Not this year.

With the justices on their midwinter break and about half the term behind them, they already have signed off on a vast rewrite of the laws that govern money in politics. They surprised even close observers of the court by jumping headlong into disputes over the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools and how post- Sept. 11-America deals with terrorism and security.

There are cases testing the limits of presidential secrecy and of civil rights protections for the disabled. One upcoming case revisits the tricky balance between free speech and the need to protect children from Internet smut.

Another case looks at patient rights to sue their health maintenance organizations. Cases now awaiting rulings include a church-state fight over scholarships for religious education and a look at the role of partisan politics in legislative redistricting.

The pledge case has grabbed the biggest headlines so far. Oral arguments are at the end of March.

A California atheist is challenging the constitutionality of the words "under God" that is part of the oath recited by generations of schoolchildren. A lower court agreed the phrase makes the pledge unconstitutional when led by a teacher in a public school classroom.

Treatment of suspects

After batting away several cases that arose from the fight against terrorism, the court recently agreed to hear two major challenges to the Bush administration's treatment of terrorism suspects.

The court seems poised to add even a third terrorism case to its docket this spring, with rulings expected by July.

Other nations, including U.S. allies, are closely watching a case testing the legal rights of more than 650 foreigners, most of them picked up in Afghanistan and Pakistan, held in open-ended military custody at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

A broader case questions the treatment of an American citizen captured on an Afghan battlefield and now held indefinitely in a military brig, without charges or trial. The government claims Yaser Esam Hamdi is a dangerous "enemy combatant" who does not qualify for the ordinary constitutional and legal protections of the American court system.

This month the justices could agree also to hear the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S.-born former gang member and convert to Islam captured at an airport in Chicago in connection with an alleged plot to detonate a radioactive bomb.

The Supreme Court could combine the cases. That would put the court on track to rule by summer on whether national security justifies the indefinite detention of American citizens captured here and overseas.

The passage of time since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has allowed legal and constitutional issues to develop to the point where the Supreme Court would have been hard pressed to ignore them this term.

Still, it does not seem that the justices are grasping for every juicy case that comes their way, said Washington lawyer Mark Stancil, a former law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist.

"I don't think the court is reaching out to decide these issues. These are important issues at the forefront of public life and at the forefront of the law. It's always been the court's role to decide those questions, and the court doesn't shy away from that responsibility."

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