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Heated emotional, political topics on Supreme Court's docket

Supreme Court October 6, 1996
Web posted at: 7:00 p.m. EDT

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States Supreme Court returns to work Monday, taking up a host of emotional and politically-charged cases.

Among the hot topics the court will hear: a sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton, assisted suicide, English- only laws and abortion.

Other closely-watched cases concern a federal law requiring a five-day waiting period before the purchase of a handgun and a voting rights case involving a Georgia congressional district containing a majority of African-Americans.

After a three-month recess, the nation's high court starts its 1996-97 term by hearing arguments and acting on roughly 1,600 appeals that piled up in the summer.

But none is more emotional than assisted suicide. The justices said they will decide whether mentally competent, terminally ill patients may seek help from their doctors to commit suicide.


The case revolves around Dr. Timothy Quill of Rochester. He gave a terminally ill patient a prescription for sleeping pills so she could kill herself.

"She was clear it was not I who was going to be taking her life. She was doing it," said Quill.


The key question: can states continue to ban physician- assisted suicide?

Cancer patient Alice Hagli says they shouldn't be able to. "Let me have the right to die with some dignity."


But religious groups are afraid assisted suicide would be abused. "We're talking about giving the doctor a new power, to actively cause death. It's a right to kill," said Richard Doerflinger of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But some believe the court's conservative wing is unlikely to approve physician-assistend suicide.

"I think that wing of the court, (Supreme Court Justice Antonin) Scalia and (Chief Justice William) Rehnquist, would be very reluctant to confer a constitutional right to assisted suicide when the Constitution does not seem to confer such a right itself," said A.E. Dick Howard of the University of Virginia Law School.


Abortion is another of the heated social issues the justices must hear. Anti-abortion protesters want the court to throw out a judge's order that keeps them 15 feet away from a clinic's entrance and patients.

Political Implications

The Supreme Court's term starts a month before the November elections, giving added weight to upcoming arguments before the bench on whether President Clinton is entitled to delay Paula Jones' sexual harassment case until he leaves office.

The election contest poses big implications for the Supreme Court itself. The outcome of the contest between Clinton and Republican rival Bob Dole and the composition of the Senate may play a key role in future court appointments.

"This term may be the end of the Rehnquist Court era," University of Virginia government professor David O'Brien said, citing speculation that Chief Justice William Rehnquist may step down next summer.

"Even though it is a conservative court, it is no less activist," O'Brien said, adding that moderate conservative Justices Anthony Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor remained the controlling swing votes on the splintered court.


On the court's far-right wing are Rehnquist, who was named to the court by President Nixon in 1971 and elevated to the top post by President Reagan in 1986, Justice Scalia, a Reagan appointee, and Justice Clarence Thomas, selected by President Bush five years ago.

The court's more liberal members consist of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both Clinton appointees, Justice David Souter, a Bush appointee, and Justice John Paul Stevens, who was named by President Ford in 1975.

"A mix of old & new"

Stephen Shapiro, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director, said the term will likely feature "an intriguing mix of the old and the new."

"The court's docket is already loaded with cases raising fundamental questions of federal-state relations that date back to the founding of the republic. However, before the year is over, the court is also likely to address the constitutional meaning of the information superhighway and its futuristic implications for human communication," he said.

He was referring to the Clinton administration's appeal urging the Supreme Court to uphold a new federal law that bars indecent material on the Internet computer networks.

Another constitutional controversy the court may decide to hear involves Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy allowing the firing of military members who are gay. Conservative legal scholar Bruce Fein acknowledged the cases might be interesting, but said the badly fractured court had been unable to carve out new constitutional law.

"They still seem to be groping for any kind of consensus. They split and split and split. I am not holding my breath for any landmark rulings," he said. "What we are witnessing is a jurisprudence of muddling through and vagueness."

Correspondent Anthony Collings and Reuters contributed to this report.

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