Video: Top court mulls law-and-order issues

By Pete Williams Justice correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/1/2007 8:29:19 AM ET 2007-10-01T12:29:19

During the U.S. Supreme Court's new term beginning Monday, the justices will consider the fundamental issue of who is allowed to vote just in time for 2008's pivotal presidential elections.

The docket also includes a challenge to the Bush administration's war on terror, a question over the constitutionality of lethal injections and a test of a strict gun law, which could lead to a clarification of the Second Amendment.

The Supreme Court will hear a challenge to an Indiana law imposed two years ago that requires voters to show photo IDs at the polls. Steve Carter, the state's attorney general, said the law is important to prevent cheating.

"Voter fraud is a problem of disturbing prevalence around the country," he said.

But William Groth, a lawyer for the Indiana Democrats, contended that there has never been a reported case of attempted or successful in-person impersonation voting fraud in the state.

Critics have claimed the hidden purpose of the law is to suppress voting by minorities, the poor and the elderly — people who tend not to have photo IDs and are predominately Democrats.

Though Indiana's law is considered the nation's toughest, roughly half of the states in America require voters to produce some form of identification.

"If the Supreme Court upholds a law like this one, then this will get contagious, and 30 state legislatures around the country will pass something similar," said Chuck Todd, the NBC News political director.

Terror laws, gun rights among other cases
The Supreme Court docket contains a challenge to the Bush administration's war on terror.

Detainees held at the Guantanamo Bay military prison in Cuba seek the chance to oppose their detentions in federal court. Video: Big decisions mark new term

Congress passed a law last year, called the Military Commissions Act of 2006, that blocked prisoners' access to the federal court system.

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D.C. gun law challenged
Washington, D.C., has urged that the justices uphold the city's ban on handguns — one of the strictest gun laws in the nation. City officials said the restriction is essential to fighting crime.

"What we ban is a weapon that is uniquely dangerous, that is easily concealed and that is disproportionately used in crime," said Linda Singer, Attorney General for the District of Columbia.

In a surprising ruling, a federal appeals court earlier this year declared the ban a violation of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The law was challenged by a Washington, D.C., resident who claimed the Constitution gives him a right to own a handgun for self-defense.

"I had a house broken into once, and things happen," said Rich Heller, the man who filed the lawsuit. "You want to protect yourself if you need to."

Though the Supreme Court discussed the Second Amendment in a 1939 gun case, the court has never definitively ruled on if the amendment protects an individual's right to own a gun or if it only protects a right of state militias to resist being disarmed by the national government.

Lethal injection to be reviewed
For the first time in more than 100 years, the Supreme Court has also agreed to review a specific method for carrying out the death penalty.

Two inmates on Kentucky's death row challenged the system for lethal injections, with its sequence of three chemicals consisting of a pain killer, a paralyzer and a drug to stop the heart. The same system is used in all but one of the nation's 38 death-penalty states.

Opponents have said the system is prone to widespread problems that can cause intense pain but makes it impossible to cry out.

"This is a procedure that we don't use to put our pets to sleep in this country because of the high risk of excruciating pain," said Steve Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

With many of the more than 3,000 inmates on death row already challenging lethal injections, the court's decision to accept the case for review may end up halting nearly all executions nationwide until the case is decided.

"The lower courts, and maybe even the executive branch of these states, may say, let's wait till we hear definitively from the U.S. Supreme Court before we rush forward with an execution," said Doug Merman, a law professor at Ohio State University.

'Securities law's Roe v. Wade'
A decision in the most important business case of the term may determine the fate of big financial fraud cases. The court has been asked to determine if investors can sue companies that play a minor role in a fraudulent scheme.

"This is securities law's Roe v. Wade," said David Langevoort, a professor at Georgetown University's law school.

Federal law allows an investor to sue firms that provide misleading information about their financial condition. This case should clarify if that liability extends to other companies that become involved in fraudulent activity but do not provide misleading information to investors.

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