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High-impact court decisions awaited


WASHINGTON -- As the Supreme Court nears the end of the term, the justices are expected to announce this week some of the most urgently awaited rulings of the session.

One area of high concern is whether the court decides that congressional districts drawn to elect minority-group lawmakers are unconstitutional, and in so doing completes a turn to the right that the justices began earlier this year with rulings that narrowed the scope of affirmative action and curbed the power of Congress over the states.

"There is a prospect this year for a significant conservative shift. The remaining cases should give us some insight into that question," said Mark V. Tushnet, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

Though the justices never say when they will finish, they are expected to wrap up the session by the end of this week. Rulings in two voting rights cases, from Georgia and Louisiana, may decide the fate of majority-black and Hispanic congressional districts created in hopes of raising the number of minority-group lawmakers to reflect the percentage of people who are members of minority groups in the general population.

In both cases, white voters are challenging redistricting plans approved by the Justice Department that created districts with an African-American majority on the grounds that the new districts deny them the "equal protection of the laws" mandated by the 14th Amendment.

Questions of race and religious freedom dovetail in an expected ruling in an Ohio case, where the state tried to keep the Ku Klux Klan from displaying a cross in front of the State House. The state of Ohio petitioned the court to reverse lower-court rulings that said the KKK cross is protected by the Constitution as an expression of religion and should not have been banned from a public display that included other organizations' crosses and a menorah. The state argued that a KKK cross, because of that group's history of racial persecution, is as much political as religious and that all political statements were banned from the capitol grounds.

In the case of Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, the court will balance freedom of religion against freedom of speech. Ronald Rosenberger and other UVA students charged that the free speech clause of the First Amendment entitles them to receive university funding for their religious magazine on the same basis by which other student organizations get aid. The university countered that the establishment clause of the same amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion") prohibits the school from funding religious activities.

In a drug test case from Oregon, the court must decide whether to uphold a lower-court ruling that a youngster's privacy rights outweigh the school's interest in curtailing disciplinary problems arising from drug use.

Finally, the court is expected to decide a case that could significantly strengthen the rights of private property owners and restrict the application of the Endangered Species Act.

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