The U.S. Supreme Court term that begins Monday is likely to produce big victories for the court's conservatives, in contrast to last term's liberal-leaning decisions in favor of Obamacare, same-sex marriage and the right to sue for housing discrimination.
"The left side did a lot of winning last year," says Prof. Irv Gornstein, who directs the Supreme Court Institute at Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C.
"I would expect a return to the norm in which the right wins most of the big cases."
Based on their previous rulings, the court's conservatives seem prepared to deal a blow to public sector unions, further restrict the use of affirmative action in college admissions and allow religiously affiliated organizations more freedom from the contraceptive insurance coverage requirements under Obamacare.
Texas Abortion Case
The justices will also soon vote on whether to take up one of the most important abortion cases in 25 years — a challenge to a controversial Texas law that has forced dozens of clinics providing abortion services in the state to close.
Passed two years ago, it required abortion clinics to meet the same building standards as ambulatory surgical centers. And it directed doctors providing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.
"This legislation builds on the strong and unwavering commitment we have made to defend life and protect women's health," said Texas Gov. Rick Perry in signing the law.
Sponsors said it was intended to ensure that women would have the means to get critical emergency care if anything went wrong.
Since the law was passed, the number of clinics providing abortion services in Texas has fallen from 42 to 19. If it's upheld, that number could drop to ten.
Opponents say the law unconstitutionally burdens the right of access to abortion services. Allowing lower court rulings to stand that upheld the law "would cause profound and irreparable harm to the rights, health, and dignity of women," said Stephanie Toti of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Requirements similar to those in Texas have been passed in 13 other states.
In a case that could deal a crippling blow to unions for teachers, police, firefighters, and other public sector employees, the court will decide whether non-union government workers can be required to pay a share of union dues to cover the cost of negotiating contracts.
Peter Grebner, a union-affiliated teacher in St. Paul, Minnesota, said the case could “upend the ability of millions of working people like me in dozens of states across the country to join together to provide a better education for our kids and fight for better wages and benefits that we can sustain our families on.”
A group of non-union teachers in California claims that being forced to pay even a share of union dues violates their free speech rights, forcing them to subsidize the activities of a union whether they agree with its goals or not.
"In this era of broken municipal budgets and a national crisis in public education, it is difficult to imagine more politically charged issues than how much money cash-strapped local governments should devote to public employees, or what policies public schools should adopt to best educate children," said Michael Carvin, a lawyer for the challengers.
But California compels non-union members "to fund a very specific point of view on these pressing public questions."
Since 1997, the Supreme Court has held that requiring non-union members to pay the cost of collective bargaining prevents "free riders," meaning workers who get the benefits of a union contract without paying for it.
But in subsequent rulings, several of the court's conservatives have suggested that the decision should be overruled.
"I would not feel very good about my prospects if I were the unions," said Erin Murphy, a Washington, DC lawyer who specializes in federal appeals court cases.
Affirmative Action in College Admissions
The issue of affirmative action in college admissions is back. The justices will again hear a challenge to the program at the University of Texas at Austin.
The school says students learn better when there's diversity on campus and within racial groups. But opponents say that's too vague a standard to justify making distinctions based on race.
The Supreme Court gave a limited victory to the University of Texas two years ago but instructed a federal appeals court to review whether the program passed constitutional muster.
After the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Texas, opponents again appealed, and now the Supreme Court will once more hear their challenge -- a fact that has advocates of affirmative action worried.
"I don't see a win for Texas," said Gornstein, who notes that Justice Anthony Kennedy may have the deciding vote.
"Kennedy believes in integration but wants it by race-neutral means," Gornstein said.
Obamacare and Contraceptive Insurance Coverage
And the court is likely to take up another challenge to the contraceptive insurance coverage requirements of Obamacare.
Religiously affiliated groups, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, say taking any steps in the process — even to opt out of the requirement — violates their religious freedom. They want the same kind of total exemption given to churches.
During his U.S. visit, Pope Francis made a point of meeting with the Little Sisters. The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said it was intended to be "a sign of support for them."
The outcome of another Texas case could change the makeup of legislatures in states with large immigrant populations. Two state residents urge the court to rule that in drawing legislative boundaries to create districts with roughly equal populations, states must count the voting population, not the total population.
The challengers say using the total population figures dilutes the voting power of residents in districts with large numbers of people who are not eligible to vote, violating the one-man, one-vote requirement.
Almost all states use total population figures. Relying instead on voting population could result in fewer districts in areas that tend to elect Hispanic representatives.
As for the makeup of the Supreme Court, this term is not likely to bring any changes. Its nine members all seem healthy, and there's a long history of the justices avoiding retirements during a presidential campaign.