WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court moves into the last month of its term Tuesday, with more than a third of its cases yet to be decided.
But unlike the pattern in recent years, the justices are not saving the best for last. They have issued rulings in most of their cases of broad importance.
However, among the 32 cases left to be decided, there are legal controversies that could yield significant rulings, depending on what the justices have to say.
They include cases testing the rights of Bible study clubs to meet in public schools, as well as the rights of Republican Party activists to spend unlimited amounts to promote their candidates. The justices also will rule on the tobacco industry's claimed free-speech right to advertise cigarettes near schools and parks.
Also pending is the case of disabled golfer Casey Martin, who is battling the PGA in hopes of remaining on the professional tour.
Typically, the justices issue their last opinions by late June and recess for the summer.
Perhaps the biggest unanswered question concerns the aging justices themselves and their retirement plans. The court's membership has stayed the same for the last seven years, and the unprecedented stability may continue a bit longer.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 71, and Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 76, have said they have no plans to quit this year. And John Paul Stevens, a sprightly 81, has given no hints that he is intending to leave soon either.
They will be on the bench Tuesday morning to issue several decisions.
Here are 10 key cases remaining to be decided:
* Tobacco ads. Do cigarette makers have a free-speech right to advertise their product, or does the state have the authority to forbid cigarette ads near schools and parks to protect children? The tobacco industry is challenging a broad ban on ads in Massachusetts that regulates not just billboards but also ads outside convenience stores (Lorillard Tobacco vs. Reilly).
* Religion and schools. Can a public school system bar the use of its schools "for religious purposes" or does a Bible club have an equal right to meet at an elementary school as do other groups, such as the Boy Scouts? The justices have signaled they are likely to rule for the Bible study club, and the ruling could give a boost to President Bush's faith-based initiative (Good News Club vs. Milford Central).
* Political spending. Do political parties have a free-speech right to spend as much as they choose to promote their candidates? Since 1974, federal law has limited such spending, but a U.S. court of appeals in Denver struck down the limits. The case of FEC vs. Colorado Republicans could increase campaign spending just as Congress is trying to tighten it through the pending McCain-Feingold bill.
* Property rights The justices have struggled for years to decide under what circumstances a ban on the development of beachfront property is unconstitutional and requires the government to pay the owner for his loss. A Rhode Island man says he has been blocked for 40 years from building in a tidal area and seeks compensation (Palazzolo vs. Rhode Island).
* Speedy deportation. In the Immigration Reform Act of 1996, Congress said immigrants who have committed crimes in the United States should be deported without a court hearing. But this closing of the courthouse door is being challenged by several longtime residents who committed minor drug offenses (Calcano-Martinez vs. INS).
* Detecting marijuana. An Oregon man's home was searched after a federal agent used a thermal-imaging device and detected heat waves emerging from the structure. The device worked well; the owner, Danny Kyllo, was using high-intensity lights to grow marijuana. The case of Kyllo vs. U.S. is expected to determine whether the use of such a detection device violates the 4th Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches.
* Retardation and the death penalty. The Texas courts have twice imposed a death sentence on Johnny Paul Penry, a rapist and murderer who has the mental age of a 6-year-old. The Supreme Court reversed his sentence on a 5-4 vote in 1989, but a second jury sentenced Penry to die. The pending ruling in Penry vs. Johnson is likely to focus narrowly on the jury instructions. In its new session next fall, the court will consider directly whether to halt capital punishment for retarded defendants.
* Copyrights and computer databases. It is not clear under the law whether news articles in computer databases are new publications or revised copies of old publications. The freelance writers at the New York Times, Newsday and Time magazine are demanding extra payments for their copyrighted articles that were put into databases. The publishers say they, not the original authors, are the owners of these revised works. While this confusion can be straightened out in future contracts, the ruling in New York Times vs. Tasini could prove a costly defeat for one side because of retroactive payments.
* Foreign-born children. Federal immigration law makes it harder for fathers of foreign-born, out-of-wedlock children to win U.S. citizenship for their children, compared to mothers in the same situation. Women's rights groups have said the court should reject all such gender-based discrimination (Nguyen vs. INS).
* Disabled golfer. The dispute between golfer Casey Martin and the PGA Tour turns on the reach of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Recently, the justices have given the law a rather narrow reading, and they voted to intervene when a federal court in California ruled that Martin, who has a circulatory disorder affecting his leg, must be permitted to use a golf cart because it is painful for him to walk (PGA Tour Inc. vs. Casey Martin).