WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Supreme Court returns to work today with a new load of legal controversies and old questions about the solidarity of a three-justice bloc that shaped several key decisions last term.
Cases involving abortion clinic blockades, ritual animal sacrifices, tax breaks for home offices and innocence claims by death-row inmates will be among the highlights of the court's oral argument schedule this fall.
The list is certain to grow when the court decides today which of the more than 1,400 pending cases will be accepted for review. Justices will hear oral arguments through April and render decisions by July.
Aside from cases, there also is keen interest among court-watchers about whether justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Sandra Day O'Connor and David H. Souter will continue to form a pivotal bloc that steers the court on a moderate course.
Last term, the trio of Republican appointees joined the court's two most consistent liberals, John Paul Stevens and Harry A. Blackmun, in preserving abortion as a legal right and banning prayers at public school graduations.
The decisions stung many conservatives. Gary L. Bauer, a former domestic policy adviser in the Reagan White House, publicly denounced Justices Kennedy, Souter and O'Connor as a "wimp bloc."
Liberals praised the abortion and prayer decisions but cautioned against a perception that the court has become moderate or that the three-justice coalition will routinely forge middle-of-the-road opinions.
Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union argue that the court has proved it is more interested in protecting majority views and government regulations than preserving or extending individual rights.
"We are dealing here with a court that is radical in the sense that it has taken a radically different view of how the Constitution works," said Ira Glasser, ACLU executive director.
Civil libertarians said they fear that several cases accepted for review will provide vehicles for the court to cut back further on the rights of criminal defendants and victims of civil rights abuses.
The court begins its new term with a full complement of justices for the first time in three years. This will be the first complete term for Justice Clarence Thomas and the second for Justice Souter.
The two appointees of President Bush have taken different philosophical paths since joining the court. Justice Thomas has frequently aligned himself with Justice Antonin Scalia, the court's most outspoken conservative. Justice Souter's views commonly have mirrored those of the more moderate Justice O'Connor.
While conservative views dominate the court, shifting coalitions have demonstrated that the majority is not monolithic.
"There are many different conservative principles," said Washington lawyer Bruce Ennis, "and they are often in tension with each other."
That split surfaced several times last year when precedents set by more liberal Supreme Courts were being challenged.
While the Kennedy-O'Connor-Souter troika took a cautious approach, three other conservatives -- Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Scalia and Thomas -- showed a willingness to abandon prior decisions.
Justice Byron R. White, the court's lone remaining Democratic appointee, swung between the two conservative coalitions depending on the issue.
It was not uncommon in civil rights cases, particularly those involving criminal law, for all seven conservatives to concur, leaving Justices Stevens and Blackmun as the only dissenters.
Speculation about changes in the court's membership centers on Justice Blackmun, who at 83 is the court's oldest member. He and Stevens, 72, also have had bouts with prostate cancer.
Of the remaining court members, Justice White is 75, Chief Justice Rehnquist is 68 and Justice O'Connor, who has battled breast cancer, is 62. Justices Kennedy, Souter and Scalia are in their 50s; Justice Thomas is 44.