Eyes on chief justice Roberts in new term
WASHINGTON -- When last we saw the chief justice of the United States on the bench, John Roberts was joining with the Supreme Court's liberals in an unlikely lineup that upheld President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Progressives applauded Roberts' statesmanship. Conservatives uttered cries of betrayal.
Now, the Supreme Court is embarking on a new term beginning Monday that could be as consequential as the last one, with the prospect for major rulings on affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.
Many people on the left and right expect Roberts to return to the fold and side with the conservative justices. If they're right, the spotlight returns to Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose vote typically is decisive in cases that otherwise split the court's liberals and conservatives.
Because of his health care vote, Roberts will be watched closely for fresh signs that he's becoming less ideologically predictable.
It may be that the dramatic health care decision presages "some shift in his tenure as chief justice," said Steve Shapiro, the American Civil Liberties Union's national legal director. "Or does it give him cover to continue to pursue a conservative agenda?"
The first piece of evidence could be in the court's consideration of the University of Texas' already limited use of race to help fill its incoming freshman classes, which comes before the court Oct. 10. The outcome could further limit or even end the use of racial preferences in college admissions.
Roberts has expressed contempt for the use of race in drawing legislative districts, calling it "a sordid business, this divvying us up by race," and in assigning students to public schools, saying that "the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."
The written arguments submitted by both sides in the Texas case leave little doubt that Kennedy, not Roberts, holds the prized vote. The challengers of the Texas program and the university itself cite Kennedy's prior writings on affirmative action a combined 50 times.
The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.
Several federal courts have agreed that the provision of the law is unconstitutional, a situation that practically ensures that the high court will step in.
Another hot topic with appeals pending before the high court is the future of a cornerstone law of the civil rights movement.
In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly approved, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation extending for 25 more years a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act. It requires states and local governments with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination, mainly in the South, to get advance approval either from the Justice Department or the federal court in Washington before making any changes that affect elections.