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Supreme Court to wrap up term with key cases

The last few decisions -- on issues including civil rights, student strip-searches and the role of race in the law -- will probably be closely watched.

June 18, 2009|David G. Savage

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is heading into the final two weeks of its term and, as usual, the justices have left some of the hardest decisions for last.

Among the cases to be decided are ones involving politically charged movies, strip-searches of students and the rights of prisoners who say DNA will prove their innocence. But the two cases likely to get the most attention concern civil rights and the proper role of race in the law.

Conservative justices have favored removing race as a factor in the law, even if it means repealing part of the historic Voting Rights Act. Liberals say protections against discrimination must be preserved in law to ensure fair elections and equality in the workplace.

The outcome in these cases, like so many others, probably depends on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. In all, 14 cases remain to be decided, with the next round of decisions expected today.

Here are some of the key questions still pending.

Voting rights

Did Congress unfairly punish the South in 2006 when it extended part of the Voting Rights Act for 25 more years?

Section 5 of the voting rights law requires most states and municipalities in the South to "pre-clear" with Washington any changes in their electoral systems. Those challenging the law say this 1960s-era rule is outdated. The court could avoid a broad ruling by saying the Austin, Texas, water district that appealed the issue is exempt from federal oversight under the existing law because it had no history of discrimination. (Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District vs. Holder.)

Race and work

When New Haven, Conn., abandoned a promotional test for firefighters, did white firefighters who had earned top scores become victims of racial discrimination? Or was the city justified because the law frowns on exams that have a "disparate impact" on minorities?

The decision will get extra attention because Judge Sonia Sotomayor, a nominee for the Supreme Court, joined a three-judge ruling in a lower court upholding the city's action. (Ricci vs. DeStefano)

School searches

Were the rights of a 13-year-old girl violated by school officials who ordered her to be strip-searched when they thought she might be hiding an extra-strength ibuprofen pill?

The 4th Amendment forbids "unreasonable searches" by the government. But in April, most justices sounded wary of limiting the authority of school employees. (Safford Unified School District vs. Redding)

Disabled students

Must school districts reimburse the parents of a child with a disability who, acting on their own, enroll him in a private school?

School officials complain of the high cost of the private school programs. Parents say the schools have a legal duty to offer a "free, appropriate" education to a disabled child. (Forest Grove School District vs. T.A.)

Politics and movies

Can the government regulate a corporate-funded, politically charged film if it is advertised or broadcast during an election year? Or is the movie protected by the free-speech guarantee of the 1st Amendment?

This case involves "Hillary: The Movie," a documentary on DVD funded by a conservative group that had expected Hillary Rodham Clinton to emerge last year as the Democratic presidential nominee. (Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.)

Prisoners and DNA

Do prisoners who maintain they are not guilty have a constitutional right to DNA testing of crime samples that are in custody of the police?

Most states have allowed such testing, but a few, including Alaska, have refused. (District attorney's office vs. Osborne.)

Now in his fourth term, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has moved to scale back the civil rights laws that give special protection to minorities. If he has a majority to pull back on voting rights and job discrimination, it will provide a powerful end to the court term -- and an opening salvo in the Senate's confirmation battle over Sotomayor.

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david.savage@latimes.com

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