Commentary: With a New Supreme Court Term Comes New Anxiety

The high court will look at issues ranging from housing discrimination to campaign spending, and how they'll rule is anyone’s guess.

Posted: 10/07/2013 04:52 PM EDT
Commentary: New Supreme Court Term, New Anxiety

There was a time when the beginning of a new term at the United States Supreme Court did not generate much in the way of emotion. But lately, the beginning of a new term represents a period of trepidation and deep concern about what these nine justices will decide in the coming year.

As in the last term, the court will deal with cases with far reaching consequences. The justices are expected to look at cases involving campaign contributions, housing discrimination, abortion rights, public prayer and affirmative action.

The Supreme Court seems to be split on a 5-to-4 basis, with the conservative majority often tipping the scale. Often it is to heartbreaking results. This was especially the case last June, when the court struck down the key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by a 5-to-4 vote. In doing so, the court no longer required a number of states to seek federal approval before changing their election laws.

But the court has also been unpredictable in its leanings. Despite its conservative bent, the court overturned the Defense of Marriage Act and, in doing so, drew the cheers of same-sex couples around the country.

There was no case whose outcome was more unpredictable than when the justices deliberated on the Affordable Care Act, the signature accomplishment of the Obama administration and the ostensible centerpiece of the Republican stubbornness on the government shutdown.

Many had expected the conservative majority to overturn the law. But to the surprise of many – no doubt a large group in the White House among them – the court upheld the law. In that case, Chief Justice John Roberts stunned many by voting to proclaim the law constitutional.

In one particularly significant case, the court will be looking at campaign finance laws, a field that the Roberts court has not had an especially warm and fuzzy feeling toward. In fact, a legacy of the Roberts court is the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, which allowed corporations and others to spend unlimited sums in elections.

The case before the court, McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, centers on limits on contributions from individuals to candidates and political parties, limits imposed by law in many states and cities.

It is the uncertainty of the court’s leanings that fuels much of the unease about the coming deliberations in the upcoming Supreme Court term. There is so much on the line, and this is not a court that's naturally disposed to progressive decisions.

With so much at stake and with justices who shape the direction of laws in this country for generations, it is clearer than ever how important it is for Americans to go the polls and participate in not only the elections that select the presidents who appoint the Supreme Court justices. Voters must also participate in huge numbers in the midterm elections that determine many of the members of the Senate who must approve these justices.

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(Photo: Bruce Byers/Getty)

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