School vouchers, death penalty still on high court's agenda

Saturday, June 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- In the next two weeks, the Supreme Court will decide a closely watched dispute over state funding for parochial school tuition, one of 19 cases still to be decided in a term also notable for its focus on the death penalty and rights of the disabled.

The court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of a school voucher program in Cleveland that helps pay tuition for about 4,500 students. The money comes from a state program, but all but a handful of the children attend church-affiliated schools.

The justices heard arguments in 79 cases in the term that is nearing an end, about average for recent years.

In the voucher case, a ruling that the Ohio program does not violate the Constitution could open the door to many more state aid programs nationally. Critics contend the voucher program clearly violates the principle of separation of church and state, while backers say it merely helps give deserving children a chance to learn.

At Our Lady of Peace school, which participates in the Cleveland program, principal Sheila Bolek said students who come from public schools are at least a year behind academically and often have parents who do not know how to help with homework.

"We have turned several kids around academically and behaviorally," Bolek said. "We've shown them a better way."

The court heard arguments in the case in February. The nine-member court is expected to be sharply divided over vouchers, and lawyers predict the key vote will be cast by center-right swing voter Sandra Day O'Connor.

Two questions

O'Connor may also be the deciding vote in another keenly awaited ruling. The court is expected to say this month whether it still is constitutionally acceptable to execute mentally retarded prisoners.

The court looked at the same question in 1989 and, in an opinion written by O'Connor, said there was no national consensus that such executions amounted to punishment that was unconstitutionally cruel or unusual. The question is whether the national mood has changed.

Another death penalty question outstanding tests whether judges, rather than juries, may decide a whether a prisoner should be executed. That case could affect 800 inmates on death rows nationwide.

High-profile or especially contentious cases frequently are decided in the last days of the court's annual term, said Steven Hawkins, executive director of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

"I think it's down to the wire because these cases are of such importance," Hawkins said. "The court is looking at removing an entire class of people from death row" and at changing the way numerous states impose the death penalty, he said.

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