U.S. Supreme Court opens term

The Supreme Court of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, known for its rulings protecting states from the demands of the federal government, faces a provocative question this term: Will it stand up for a California law that permits using marijuana with a doctor's approval? (03-1454 Ashcroft v. Raich, scheduled for argument on Nov. 29.)

The state-federal clash over California's Compassionate Use Act, adopted in 1996, became dramatically clear in August 2002 at the rural home of Diane Monson, whose doctor recommended marijuana to relieve her severe back pain.

State and federal law enforcement officers raced to her house after spotting marijuana growing in her back yard. When she told them she cultivated the plants for medical use, the state sheriff's deputies backed down. But a federal drug agent insisted the plants be destroyed and chopped them down as Monson recited the text of the California law.

"He did, in fact, that hot August day, take my cannabis, take my rights and that's not OK," she says, explaining why she sued the Justice Department.

Federal law bans marijuana possession, and Congress has never agreed that there is a legitimate medical use for it. But eight states — Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada, Oregon, Vermont and Washington — have laws similar to California's. Supporters of the laws say tens of thousands of residents in those states use marijuana with a doctor's advice.

Death penalty for young offenders
This term's legal challenge to the death penalty asks the Supreme Court to decide whether executing offenders who were under 18 when they committed their crimes is unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. (03-633 Roper v Simmons, scheduled for argument Oct. 13)

Christopher Simmons was 17 when he tied up a woman whose house he was robbing, drove her to a bridge and threw her into a river to her death. A jury convicted him and recommended the death penalty.

But opponents say capital punishment should be reserved for "the worst of the worst" and that juveniles, who are less mature than adults, should face at most life in prison.

"They're not as responsible for what they're doing as a fully formed adult. They have less impulse control. They don't have the same sense of risk. They don't have the same sense of future consequence," argues Stephen Harper, a Miami defense lawyer.

Since 1976, 22 juvenile offenders have been executed nationwide and 72 are now on death row. The Supreme Court in 1988 struck down the death penalty for offenders younger than 16 but ruled the following year that it was constitutionally permissible for 16- or 17-year-olds.

Opponents argue, however, that more states have since moved away from the practice and that "evolving standards of decency" should render the practice unconstitutional.  Using a similar analysis, the Supreme Court two years ago struck down the death penalty for the mentally retarded, finding that a national consensus had been reached among the states in opposition to executing such individuals.

Federal sentencing guidelines
The court begins its new term by hearing one of the most important cases, a challenge to the guidelines used by federal judges to sentence defendants in criminal cases (04-104 United States v Booker and 04-105 United States v Fanfan, scheduled for argument Oct. 4).

The justices last year struck down a set of state guidelines, finding that Washington state improperly allowed sentencing judges to consider factors that were not brought up during trial. The federal system works the same way.

"Judges basically are deciding what people are guilty of, rather than juries. And that's the issue. Is it judges or juries who should decide these things?" says Professor Stephen Saltzburg of George Washington University's school of law.

Under the rules, used to sentence more than 60,000 defendants a year, judges can add time to a defendant's sentence by considering such things as past crimes or the amount of narcotics seized in a drug case.

Other cases, concerns
Among other issues, the court will also decide how much proof older workers need to prove age discrimination (03-1160 Smith v City of Jackson, scheduled for argument Nov. 3)  and what level of suspicion police need to justify using drug-sniffing dogs (03-923 Illinois v Caballes, scheduled for argument Nov. 10). And the court might also examine the rules governing public displays of the Ten Commandments. Several cases raising that controversial question are pending.

Hanging over the term is the question of whether any of the justices will decide to retire, giving whoever's elected president the first court nomination in more than a decade. Among the court's most senior members, John Paul Stevens is 84, Chief Justice Rehnquist just turned 80 and Sandra Day O'Connor is 74. But none of the justices shows any signs of interest in stepping down.

Pete Williams is NBC’s justice correspondent.