By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/2/2006 10:43:05 AM ET 2006-10-02T14:43:05

The U.S. Supreme Court term that begins today requires the justices to tackle the divisive subjects of abortion and race in school admissions. But the court will decide them without Sandra Day O'Connor, who cast the critical votes the last time they were before the court.

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Among the most high profile cases are two challenges to the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. Though President Bush signed it into law, it was blocked by lower courts. They found its lack of an exception to protect a woman's health to be unconstitutional.

Congressional supporters of the ban said the law would stop late term abortions in which doctors partially deliver a fetus then collapse its skull. After examining medical evidence, they chose to provide no health exceptions, finding that the procedure was never medically necessary.

'Partial-birth' battle
"I think when you're talking about the partial delivery of a child and then that child's life is exterminated, that's where that line can be drawn," says Jay Sekulow, a conservative legal activist and supporter of the restriction.

The Bush Administration is urging the court to uphold the ban, submitting a legal brief that says the law "simply eliminates a disfavored and rarely used late-term abortion procedure."

But women's groups say the ban is so vaguely worded that it would also restrict a commonly performed abortion procedure used during the second trimester of pregnancy, long before a fetus would be viable on its own.

"This is really an attack on one of the central principles of Roe v Wade, which is to protect women's health and to ensure that women can make choices about abortion procedures pre-viability," says Priscilla Smith of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

Six years ago, the court struck down a nearly identical ban, from Nebraska, by a 5-4 ruling -- with Justice O'Connor casting the deciding vote.

Racial diversity in public schools
The issue of race in education this term comes from an unusual quarter. While the court's previous rulings have dealt with college admissions, the latest cases involve public schools that use race in deciding whether students can attend the schools of their choice.

"A diverse education, the opportunity to be in a diverse student body, is an important value," says Patti Spencer of the Seattle school district, which uses race as a deciding factor in assigning students at popular schools that cannot accommodate all who want to attend.

But parents challenging the practice say children shouldn't be barred from the schools they choose because of their race.

A Seattle parent, Kathleen Brose, calls the policy unconstitutional.

"We pay our taxes. We support the school levies. It's just, it's not fair," she says.

Previous ruling
In the courts most recent affirmative action decision, in 2003, the justices ruled that colleges could consider race in student admissions as a measure of increasing campus diversity, which is found to have educational advantages. It was another 5-4 decision with O'Connor casting the deciding vote.

In the other major case the court has already agreed to hear, a lawsuit filed by states, cities, and environmental groups urges the justices to rule that the federal government has the legal authority to limit greenhouse gasses produced by cars. Those emissions, they say, are contributing to pollution which warms the earth's atmosphere.

Warns David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "We face a very dangerous future if we don't curb the pollution that is causing global warming."

But the Bush administration argues that the EPA lacks the legal power to regulate those emissions from cars and says it prefers to seek voluntary compliance by industry.

Because the court's first formal day of the term is also the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, the justices will not convene in the courtroom to hear oral argument until Tuesday.

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