Two Women and Seven Men


This First Monday in October -- the traditional beginning of a new term for the Supreme Court -- will be unlike any previous. Two women will occupy justices' chairs. This comes only 12 years after the first woman justice joined the court. The tokenism era of the court is over. Unlike Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in 1981, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was not sought specifically as a woman candidate. She emerged late in the selection process by impressing President Clinton more than any of his male candidates.

This is not meant to take anything away from Justice O'Connor, who has proved to be as able a jurist as most of her colleagues and predecessors -- and has, in fact, emerged in recent terms as the center around which moderate majorities have been built. Justice Ginsburg is expected to join and strengthen this bloc -- and nudge it slightly left. Of course, prediction is sometimes risky with new justices. Justice O'Connor was expected to be more conservative than she has turned out to be.

Relatively few cases of widespread public interest are anticipated this term. That is in keeping with the trend of the court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist. It likes to leave issues to the other branches of government to resolve. In each of the last two terms it has produced fewer signed opinions than in any term since 1969-1970. That seems likely to continue this term.

One case of widespread public interest was just added to the docket last week. The court agreed to hear arguments in a case involving cable television's First Amendment rights. May cable operators decide without government interference what programs to carry? A 1992 law requires them to carry certain programs. Is it constitutional?

Another case of widespread interest the justices will hear involves using federal anti-racketeering laws to protect abortion clinics from violent and intimidating protests. Last term the court ruled that clinics are not protected by civil rights laws. So pro-choice groups and the Clinton administration have asked the court to rule that these protests are criminal conspiracies. Justice Ginsburg's questions and any written opinion will be studied closely in this case. She is the first Supreme Court nominee ever to have explicitly endorsed in confirmation hearings the right to an abortion.

Another gender-related question on the docket has to do with a state's using challenges to remove men from juries in paternity cases. There are two sexual harassment cases. The justices will also hear arguments in such perennials as a couple of civil rights cases, one involving blacks' political rights and one involving Hispanics'.

There is also a pornography case, and the question of whether entertainers who parody other entertainers have violated copyright laws. The court may add (but hasn't so far) a case dealing with one hot legislative topic of the year, homosexual rights.

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