Hot-button issues including gun rights and counter-terrorism will be on the docket when the US Supreme Court, including newest member Sonia Sotomayor, begins a new term on Monday.
The nation’s highest court, whose decisions deeply affect US policy, will also go to work amid growing speculation over the possible departure of a judge.
The nine justices have agreed to examine 55 cases this term. They will soon decide whether to add to that roster an appeal brought by Guantanamo Bay detainees who have been cleared for release and are seeking resettlement in the United States.
Another sensitive case likely to be taken up by the court is President Barack Obama’s request to block the release of photos showing detainee abuse at the hands of US personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, despite a court order demanding the images be made public.
The justices have already agreed to take on a case that involves defining the parameters of the term “material support to terrorism,” a charge that has been leveled in recent years in dozens of cases to obtain some 60 convictions.
It has become an important tool for prosecutors because it is such a broad term.
But its use is contested by a rights group on behalf of an organization that has worked on conflict resolution and human rights issues with members of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Whatever decision the court makes, it will affect dozens of detainees at Guantanamo who have had the charge leveled against them.
On gun rights, the court will hear a case asking it to specify whether its June 2008 ruling confirming Americans’ rights to bear firearms, at home and for self defense, applies even where local and state governments ban weapons.
The justices will also decide whether minors can be sentenced to life in prison without parole for crimes other than murder, with some 100 prisoners in this situation in the United States.
The case in question involves two Florida prisoners, who were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole at ages 13 and 16 for rape and burglary.
In a case with international scope, the court will be asked to decide whether the immunity of former Somali prime minister Mohammed Ali Samatar can be lifted to allow him to be pursued for alleged torture and murder carried out in the 1980s.
Other issues on the docket include questions over whether financial strategies or management principles can be patented, whether videos showing animal cruelty are illegal, and the legality of a two meter cross that stands in the middle of a desert.
The financial crisis has made its mark on the court’s roster of cases as well. The justices will decide whether shareholders in an investment fund have the right to limit fees paid to outside consultants.
The composition of the court has already changed once this year with the confirmation of Sotomayor — the first Hispanic justice on the Supreme Court.
An atypical court nominee, Sotomayor was born to Puerto Rican parents, raised in New York’s hardscrabble Bronx neighborhood, and worked her way up despite suffering childhood diabetes.
But as she begins her new job, all eyes and ears will be on Justice John-Paul Stevens, the doyen of the institution.
Named to court in 1975 by former president Gerald Ford, the 89-year-old is the head of the liberal wing of the court. But his decision to hire only one clerk for the fall 2010 term has touched off speculation that he is planning to retire, though there has been no official announcement.
Even if Stevens does announce his retirement, the opportunity for Obama to pick his second Supreme Court justice is not likely to change the composition of the court, which has four liberal-leaning members, four conservative-leaning, and Anthony Kennedy — the court’s swing vote.