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Supreme Court opens with chance for change

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court term that opens this week gives the Republican-appointed majority a chance to reshape decades-old precedents on campaign finance, racial discrimination and legislative prayer.

While the nine-month term lacks the blockbusters of recent years, it features "an unusually large number of cases in which the decision under review relies on a Supreme Court precedent that may be vulnerable," said Irv Gornstein, executive director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University.

The court's four Democratic appointees won major rulings in each of the last two terms, upholding President Barack Obama's health care law and buttressing gay marriage.

The current docket is dominated by cases more likely to leave at least some of those justices in dissent. The court, led by Chief Justice John Roberts, may allow a freer flow of campaign dollars, loosen restrictions on prayer in the public arena and move another step toward a colorblind Constitution.

The justices also plan to hear cases involving presidential recess appointments, abortion-clinic picketing, housing discrimination and federal air-pollution regulations.

In its 2010 Citizens United ruling, the court allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in political spending.

A new case focuses on contributions to candidates and parties, rather than spending -- and raises questions about the 1976 decision that has been the bedrock of campaign-finance law for almost four decades. That ruling, Buckley v. Valeo, said the government had broad latitude to set limits on contributions to guard against corruption. Individual donors in 2013-14 can give no more than $123,200 every two years, including a maximum of $48,600 to federal candidates and $74,600 to political parties and political action committees.

"I think there are five justices who would like to overrule Buckley," said Pamela Harris, a Georgetown law professor in Washington who previously served in the Obama administration.

Two lesser-known precedents will be tested by the affirmative action case, to be argued on Oct. 15. They are 1969 and 1982 rulings designed to protect minority groups from laws that cut them out of the political process.

The dispute stems from a 2006 ballot initiative that amended Michigan's constitution to bar race-based college admissions, nullifying a 3-year-old Supreme Court decision.

A federal appeals court said the Michigan measure put racial minorities at a unique disadvantage by barring them from asking universities for special preferences -- something the panel said athletes, band members and children of alumni could still do.

The court will also consider legislative prayer for the first time in 30 years. The case centers on the practice in Greece, N.Y., of beginning every town board meeting with a prayer from a local religious leader.

The prayers were exclusively Christian, often invoking Jesus, until two citizens of the Rochester suburb complained. They sued and a federal appeals court said the town's practice violated the Constitution.

The court also will rule on the reach of the president's constitutional power to bypass the Senate confirmation process by appointing officials during legislative recesses. The dispute stems from Obama's 2012 appointment of members of the National Labor Relations Board.

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