WASHINGTON (USATODAY.com) - After two blockbuster terms in which it saved President Obama's health care law and advanced the cause of same-sex marriage, the Supreme Court appears poised to tack to the right in its upcoming term on a range of social issues, from abortion and contraception to race and prayer.
The justices, whose term begins Monday, could rule against racial minorities in two cases and abortion rights in one or two others. They also could uphold prayers at government meetings, ease restrictions on wealthy political donors, strike down federal environmental regulations and take a first bite out of Obamacare.
The court, whose work won't be halted by the government shutdown, also may be ready to restrict the power of the federal government and stand up for states and municipalities in several cases, furthering their defense of federalism. And when the executive and legislative branches of government come into conflict over the centuries-old issue of appointments and confirmations, the justices' attitude may be "a pox on both your houses," says Kannon Shanmugam, an appellate lawyer who has argued 13 cases before the high court.
"They don't defer to the other branches. They don't seem to care about precedents," says Stephen Wermiel, a constitutional law professor at American University Washington College of Law. The justices, he says, are "more than willing to step up to the plate."
That was evident in June, when the court on successive days struck down the most important sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, over the objections of President Obama and congressional Democrats, and the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, over the objection of Republicans.
"You could not have less deference to a legislative institution," says David Salmons, an appellate lawyer who has argued 14 cases before the high court. "This is a court that's very comfortable in exercising their power."
That power has been flexed by Chief Justice John Roberts, whose ruling against the Voting Rights Act has made it easier for southern states to pass and implement new restrictions on voting. It has been flexed by Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, the perennial swing vote, who forced the federal government to recognize same-sex marriages and, just two days earlier, ordered lower courts to closely scrutinize affirmative action plans at public universities for possible violations.
This term could introduce to America the "Alito Court" - not dominated by Associate Justice Samuel Alito, still the most junior member of the conservative majority, but altered the most by his replacement of Sandra Day O'Connor in 2006. If the court veers further to the right this term, that substitution will have flipped the switch.
"We now have seen the full flowering of the replacing of Alito for O'Connor," says Walter Dellinger, former acting solicitor general in the Clinton administration.
Conservative interest groups, perhaps seeing their best chance in years to advance their causes, have argued aggressively in their briefs to the court not only for favorable rulings but for overturning some of the court's time-honored precedents: a 37-year-old campaign finance decision, a 31-year-old ruling on racial integration, even a 93-year-old opinion allowing the federal government to supersede state laws when implementing international treaties.
"They think they have the wind at their back," says Pamela Harris, a former Justice Department lawyer now teaching at Georgetown University Law Center.
CONSERVATIVE CAUSES DOMINATE DOCKET
Most of the high-profile cases on the 2013 term's docket fall into one of two categories: Lower courts sided either with liberal activists or federal agencies. They include:
A challenge to the Federal Election Commission's limit on how much donors can contribute over two years to candidates, parties and political action committees. It comes from a Republican businessman, Shaun McCutcheon, who wants to exceed the current $123,200 cap.
A defense by Michigan's Republican attorney general of the state's 2006 constitutional amendment banning affirmative-action policies at state universities. If the justices reverse the lower court's decision, it could bolster such bans in other states, including California.
The Greece, N.Y., town board's defense of its policy allowing local clergy to deliver prayers at town board meetings. The lower court sided with two women who argued the predominance of Christian clergy and prayers is coercive.
A challenge by abortion opponents to a Massachusetts law setting up 35-foot buffer zones around reproductive health clinics that perform abortions. The lower court dismissed what it labeled arguments "old and new, some of which are couched in a creative recalibration of First Amendment principles."
A defense by Oklahoma Republican officials of a state law that has the effect of blocking most medical abortions. The law bans off-label uses of drugs that end pregnancies, including RU-486, even though doctors routinely prescribe the drugs that way.
A challenge by officials in Mount Holly, N.J., to federal housing regulations prohibiting policies that disproportionately harm minorities. At stake is the town's effort to replace a blighted low-income neighborhood with higher-priced homes.
Also on the court's radar are cases involving greenhouse gas regulations issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. The cases accepted so far involve the EPA's appeal of a decision striking down its cross-state pollution rules. But a slew of petitions are pending from industries and Republican state officials seeking to roll back broader regulations.
Richard Faulk of George Mason University School of Law, an attorney specializing in environmental cases, says the court no longer has federal agencies' backs. In a dissent earlier this year, he notes, Roberts warned of "the danger posed by the growing power of the administrative state."
"There's a real collision between the court and the way the executive branch is exercising its regulatory authority," says Andrew Pincus, an appellate lawyer who has argued 23 cases before the Supreme Court.
HOT-BUTTON ISSUES IN THE PIPELINE
The court also is likely to choose from among dozens of challenges to the Obama health law's requirement that employers include contraceptive services in preventive health insurance plans. In that case, lower courts have ruled both ways, and the government is among those seeking the high court's review - but conservatives have the most to gain.
"The court will get another shot at the Affordable Care Act," says Paul Clement, a former solicitor general under George W. Bush and the nation's premier Supreme Court litigant. Clement represented states challenging the law in the historic 2012 case.
It likely won't be the last shot. Other challenges to Obamacare are working their way through lower courts and may reach the justices in future years. Among them is an effort to restrict aid to low-income Americans to state-run health exchanges; federally-operated exchanges in mostly Republican states would be rendered ineffective.
Likewise, the medical abortion case probably won't be the last effort to push the justices into further limits on abortion rights. More cases are in the pipeline, including state laws banning abortions after 20 weeks, mandating ultrasound tests and imposing new restrictions on abortion clinics.
And it's only a matter of time before the court is faced with another Second Amendment case following its 2008 decision protecting the right of private citizens to possess firearms. Lower courts have set varying limits on the right to carry weapons in public -so-called concealed-carry laws.
While the court is likely to consider early next year whether police making an arrest can search suspects' cellphones, that may be only the latest in a future string of cases balancing privacy rights against new forms of technology.
Even the landmark cases most recently decided on same-sex marriage, voting rights and affirmative action could get encores at the high court in the near future. The court's demand for closer scrutiny of the University of Texas' racial preferences is back in that state's lower courts; new challenges have been filed against voting restrictions there and in North Carolina.
And just last week, the lawyers who defeated California's Proposition 8 ban on gay marriage joined a Virginia case that seeks to legalize the practice there. Such cases, says Tom Goldstein, publisher of Scotusblog.com and a frequent Supreme Court litigant, are "making their way to the Supreme Court like a rocket ship, or a series of rocket ships."