Court Could Confront Marriage, Abortion, Affirmative Action in New Term

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If the stars align, the Supreme Court term that begins Monday could be one of the most momentous in decades, with decisions on same-sex marriage, abortion, and affirmative action.

The court has yet to take up any of those issues, but it seems highly likely the justices will consider at least one, if not all, of them by the term's end next June.

"This term promises to be somewhere between very important and absolutely historic," says Tom Goldstein, publisher of the SCOTUSBlog website.

Five states are defending their laws banning same-sex marriage. In an unusual move, the gay couples who challenged those laws and won in the lower courts agreed that the justices should take up the state appeals and decide the issue once and for all.

Three cases are pending over Virginia's ban, along with one each from Indiana, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. In all of them, federal appeals courts declared the bans unconstitutional but put their rulings on hold to give the Supreme Court the last word.

"It's a near certainty the court will grant and decide the issue this term," says Irv Gornstein, director of the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center Washington, "given how much is at stake for so many gay couples and for the the states."

Thirty-one states ban same-sex marriage through statutes or amendments to their constitutions.

The justices could also be asked to decide the constitutionality of state laws restricting access to abortion, including requirements in Texas that clinics meet the standards of ambulatory surgical centers and that clinic doctors have hospital admission privileges.

Courts have struck down similar requirements in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The justices may again consider the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. A challenge to the program at the University of Texas is back after federal courts upheld it following a second round of appeals.

Among cases already granted is a test of a federal law against communicating a threat in the Internet age. The case involves a Pennsylvania man who posted hostile messages about his estranged wife on his Facebook page.

After she got a restraining order against him, he wrote, "Put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?"

The justices are asked to decide whether the government must prove that a person intends to make a threat or whether it's enough to show that a reasonable person, seeing the message, would consider the words threatening.

The term seems unlikely to produce a retirement on the bench. The court's oldest justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, turned 81 in March. But she has said repeatedly in the past few months that she intends to stay.

In a recent interview with Elle magazine, she dismissed calls for her to leave the court now so that President Barack Obama can appoint her successor.

"Anybody who thinks that if I step down, Obama could appoint someone like me, they're misguided," she said, adding that she'll stay "as long as I can do the job full steam."