Supreme Court To Decide Key Issues

Supreme Court to Decide Hot Button Issues

The Court will look hear cases on life sentences for minors, a cross on federal land, and more

Posted October 2, 2009

Sonia Sotomayor sailed through her confirmation hearings and recently took her seat on the Supreme Court. Veteran court watchers have long said that her views generally align with the court’s liberal bloc and that of Justice David Souter, whom she replaced. But how she’ll actually vote on a host of issues will remain unknown until the opening of the new court term on October 5. The court has scheduled a series of hot-button cases involving lifetime sentences for minors, the legality of a cross on federal land, the government’s obligation to make photos of abused detainees public, and the legality of selling videos of animal torture.

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The animal abuse case will lead off the court’s term. At issue is a federal law that prohibits the sale of films depicting animal torture. First Amendment advocates say that the law violates freedom of speech, which should protect the sale of such material, however abhorrent. The government, meanwhile, contends that the statute is akin to indecency laws and statutes banning child pornography, which, the Supreme Court has ruled, don’t violate the Constitution.
In November, the court will look at life sentences for minors. Besides the United States, the only nation in the world that allows children to receive terms of life without parole is Somalia. But that may change, depending on the outcome of a pair of cases involving juveniles who were sentenced in Florida to life without parole. Critics argue that the sentences are equivalent to capital punishment for people unable to fully understand the significance of their crimes. Four years ago, the high court ruled that the death penalty for minors was unconstitutional.
In the Florida cases, a 13- and 17-year-old were convicted of nonhomicide crimes—sexual battery and armed burglary. One of the central issues in the cases is whether minors are as responsible for the crimes they commit as adults are. Nationwide, more than 2,500 children are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole.
In another case, the high court will revisit the perennially contentious issue of the separation of church and state. In 1934, in a remote part of the Mojave National Preserve in California, the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a 6-foot cross to honor the nation’s veterans. The original cross has been replaced several times, but for the past decade, the monument has been at the center of a fight over whether it qualifies as a state endorsement of religion. (A request to erect a Buddhist memorial near the cross was refused by the National Park Service.)
Attempting to avert a court showdown, Congress in 2004 sold the acre of land on which the cross stands to a private group—a move that may have unintentionally hurt the government’s position by underscoring its commitment to the cross, says Peter Eliasberg, a managing attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, which is fighting to remove the cross. The VFW, which opposes removing it, fears such a decision could lead to other Christian memorials being dismantled. The cross itself has been covered with a plywood box until the case is resolved.
In another closely watched case, the justices will hear a challenge from the ACLU, which is pushing under the Freedom of Information Act for the release of photographs and videos of abused detainees in Iraq and Afghanistan. The original FOIA requests from late 2003 have been the sources of most of the public information about government interrogations, including legal memos permitting techniques that many experts say constituted torture. In May, the Obama administration said it would release the photos, but the president later changed his mind, concurring with Pentagon officials who had argued that the release could endanger troops serving overseas. Civil liberties groups contend that unspecific and hypothetical future threats are not reason enough to prevent the photos from being released.


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