US & World

Supreme Court begins new term

As it does each year, the U.S. Supreme Court greets the first Monday in October with a new term. KPCC's Molly Peterson spoke with some Southland law professors about what's in store this session.

Molly Peterson: These days, Erwin Chemerinsky is dean of the law school at University of California at Irvine. But he spent a lot of time in the classroom with constitutional law students while he was at USC. During a panel discussion on that campus, Chemerinsky said this year's October term might hold good news for at least some of his audience.

Erwin Chemerinsky: I think there may be a benefit for those who are law students. As the number of cases has gone down, the average length of the opinions has gone up. (laughs)

Peterson: This year, he thinks the opinions will get shorter as the docket grows longer. With few hot-button issues coming up, many non-lawyers might ignore what the justices do this term. But Chemerinsky said deep emotions drive some questions before the court.

Chemerinsky: There's a case about Thomas Lee Goldstein. He spent 24 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit because of misconduct in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office. There's a case about whether or not the widow of an ex-smoker can sue a tobacco company for fraud in marketing cigarettes. Many of these cases come from very human stories, and even tragedies.

Peterson: One person's sorrow can ripple through the courtroom and establish a precedent. A Vermont woman, a musician who took migraine medicine someone improperly managed, developed gangrene and lost her arm. In state court, she won almost $7 million from the drug manufacturer Wyeth. Kenneth Starr, dean of Pepperdine's law school, said the nation's high court will decide whether federal law trumps that state judgment.

Kenneth Starr: And the magical words that you'll see in this very interesting and very poignant case is hugely important, practically speaking. Tens of thousands of cases, it is estimated, will be affected by a ruling, because imagine all of the personal injury cases around the country arising out of pharmaceuticals and the administration of them.

Peterson: Even so, Starr said, the Supreme Court's maintaining a low profile this term. USC constitutional law professor Rebecca Brown said she suspects that's intentional.

Rebecca Brown: My sense is that the court would really rather not issue a very controversial opinion right before November 4th. You know, so they're timing things so that they're not in the spotlight on election day. They don't want to participate in election day politics, no one does, because they know that's not their role.

Peterson: Some cases the justices are waiting to review could make bigger waves next year. David Cruz of USC's law faculty said the Supreme Court may yet take up the increasingly-difficult question of whether the federal Voting Rights Act is constitutional. If it does, he says, it will be a blockbuster.

David Cruz: Because we still see a lot of voting rights litigation today, even though we see much more ability of minority communities to elect their preferred representatives. We see significantly more diverse legislatures at both the state and national legislation because of the Voting Rights Act. If you abolished it this year, that would be a big deal.

Peterson: Cruz and other experts said they find it hard to avoid politics when they talk about the Supreme Court. Now that senior justices work into their seventies and eighties, court watchers expect at least one retirement during the next president's term.

That would set up another round of high-profile scrutiny for whoever the president chooses as the next justice. Pepperdine's Ken Starr said political and public pressures have made lawmakers and non-lawyers less likely nominees than members of lower courts.

Starr: You must have been a court of appeals judge to be seriously considered. Now maybe a President Obama, maybe a President McCain, a maverick, will break that mold, but it seems pretty powerful.

Peterson: The next president may not want to risk sparking debate with an unusual Supreme Court nominee. But a few law professors said, once we know the results of next month's election, some fireworks may emerge from the present court later this term.