Church-state issues dominate top court

Sunday, September 30, 2001

WASHINGTON -- Despite widespread predictions of at least one Supreme Court retirement, the same familiar nine justices will take the bench Monday for the start of a new term dominated by a dramatic test of the separation of church and state.

The court also plans to rule on cases involving affirmative action, the death penalty and child pornography, among many other issues. So far, it looks like a year that will draw a moderate amount of interest from the general public, several lawyers and law professors said.

"A medium year, but the main thing to remember is that you can't tell very much at this point," said Georgetown University law professor Susan Low Bloch. "At this point last year, we had no idea there would be a Bush v. Gore."

That decision defined the court last year and led to deep public division over the court's role in ending ballot recounts in Florida. The bitter 5-4 vote left the justices testy, but they seem to have shaken it off, said University of Virginia law professor A.E. Dick Howard.

The conservative-dominated court has gradually redrawn the line of government involvement in religious education. It could go much further with a case that asks whether taxpayer money can subsidize tuition at church-run schools.

The court will hear the school voucher case sometime early next year, with a decision expected by summer.

The affirmative action case features a small, white-owned construction firm and its fight against government programs that help steer business to rival minority firms. Like the voucher case, it presents a constitutional question that also carries great political freight for the Bush administration and conservative voters.

The court seems determined to rule this term on whether it is constitutional to execute the mentally retarded. The court will reconsider its 1989 ruling upholding such executions.

Last week, the court dismissed a case that had become moot, but substituted another appeal from a Death Row inmate with an IQ of 59.

Other highlights of the court schedule so far include two Internet cases.

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