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Supreme Court term begins amid government shutdown
First Published Oct 07 2013 09:00 am • Last Updated Oct 07 2013 01:13 pm

Washington » The Supreme Court began its new term Monday by turning away hundreds of appeals, including Virginia’s bid to revive its anti-sodomy law.

The justices took the bench just past 10 o’clock on the first Monday in October, even as much of the rest of the government was coping with a partial shutdown.

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Chief Justice John Roberts formally opened the new term without any reference to the partisan impasse over the budget and the new health care law that his vote helped uphold in 2012.

The court has announced it will operate normally at least through the end of this week. The justices are hearing six arguments, including a challenge to limits on campaign contributions.

Among the appeals denied Monday was Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s request to review a federal appeals court ruling that threw out the state’s ban on oral and anal sex. Ten years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law in a case involving two adults. Virginia argued that the Texas ruling did not apply to sex acts between adults and minors.

The justices did not comment in rejecting that argument Monday.

The court also declined to hear, at least for now, Argentina’s appeal of a ruling that orders it to pay hedge funds that bought up some of the country’s unpaid debt from its default in 2001. The country is continuing to pursue its case in federal court in New York and could file another appeal with the Supreme Court.

The new term may be short on the sort of high-profile battles over health care and gay marriage that marked the past two years, but the court already has agreed to hear important cases about campaign contributions, housing discrimination, government-sanctioned prayer and the president’s recess appointments. Abortion, contraceptive coverage under the new health care law and cellphone privacy also may find their way onto the court’s calendar.

Several of those cases ask the court to overrule prior decisions — bold action in an institution that relies on the power of precedent.

"There are an unusual number of cases going right to hot-button cultural issues and aggressive briefing on the conservative side asking precedents to be overruled," said Georgetown University law professor Pamela Harris, who served in President Barack Obama’s Justice Department.


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Paul Clement, a frequent advocate before the court and the top Supreme Court lawyer under President George W. Bush, agreed that the opportunity exists for dramatic precedent-busting decisions. But Clement said each case also offers the court "an off-ramp," a narrower outcome that may be more in keeping with Chief Justice John Roberts’ stated desire for incremental decision-making that bridges the court’s ideological divide.

The campaign finance argument on Tuesday is the first major case on the calendar. The 5-4 decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 allowed corporations and labor unions to spend unlimited sums in support of or opposition to candidates, as long as the spending is independent of the candidates.

The new case, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, is a challenge to the overall limits on what an individual may give to candidates, political parties and political action committees in a two-year federal election cycle, currently $48,600 to candidates and $123,200 in total. The $2,600 limit on contributions to a candidate is not at issue.

Since the Buckley v. Valeo decision in 1976, the court has looked more favorably on contribution limits than on spending restrictions because of the potential for corruption in large contributions. The big issue in the current case is whether the justices will be just as skeptical of limits on contributing as on spending.

Three justices, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, have signaled their willingness to do so. It remains to be seen whether Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the other two members of the Citizens United majority, are willing to go along.

Among other top cases already set for review:

—Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, is asking the court to uphold its practice of opening town council meetings with a prayer, despite an appeals court ruling that found the invocations a violation of the First Amendment because they almost always were Christian prayers. The court could use the case to rule that courts should take a more hands-off approach to religion in the public square or it could hold more narrowly that the town’s practice is consistent with a 1983 decision upholding prayer at the start of government meetings.

—Mount Holly, N.J., is defending a plan to demolish and redevelop a rundown neighborhood against claims that it discriminates because it disproportionately affects African-American and Latino residents. At issue is whether there also must be an intent to discriminate under federal housing law. The issue affects a range of transactions involving real estate and applies to banks and mortgage companies as well as governments, such as the one involved in this case.

—Michigan is fighting to preserve a constitutional amendment that bans the use of racial preferences in education after a federal appeals court ruled that the constitutional ban is itself discriminatory. This case, unlike last term’s look at a University of Texas admissions plan, does not involve the viability of affirmative action, but rather whether opponents of racial preferences can enshrine that ban in the state constitution.

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