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School integration tops high court's agenda

The Baltimore Sun

Washington -- The Supreme Court heads into the final month of its term this week and is expected to deliver major decisions on the future of school integration, the role of corporate money in political campaign ads and a taxpayer challenge to President Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative."

There are likely to be more 5-4 rulings and sharply worded dissents as the justices hand down rulings in the 26 remaining cases by the end of this month and then leave town for the summer.

If Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. had something of a honeymoon last year, it came to an end this year.

The deep divide between the conservative and liberal wings was apparent in rulings on abortion and global warming. Both were decided by 5-4 votes, with conservatives winning the abortion case and the liberals carrying the global warming decision.

Only Justice Anthony M. Kennedy was in the majority both times.

Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. have lined up with veteran conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

They are opposed by a liberal contingent led by 87-year old Justice John Paul Stevens and joined by Justices David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer.

In the middle sits Kennedy. His vote often creates a 5-4 majority for one side or the other. In the court's 13 rulings decided by one vote this term, Kennedy is the only justice to have been in the majority each time.

This month, the conservatives figure to prevail in three cases. Parents Involved v. Seattle will decide whether school officials may use racial guidelines to maintain integration.

Parents from Seattle and Louisville, Ky., are challenging the voluntary integration policies in those cities.

Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life will decide whether groups may use corporate money to sponsor broadcast ads just before an election -- which is now prohibited by the McCain-Feingold Act.

A third case, Hein v. Freedom from Religion, tests whether citizens may to go court to challenge Bush's "Faith-Based Initiative."

Roberts and the other conservatives have suggested that these claims should be thrown out without a hearing because the taxpayers do not have standing to sue. A ruling along those lines could make it harder for advocates of church-state separation to go to court.

On the business front, the court will decide whether to scrap a nearly 100-year-old rule that forbids manufacturers from fixing retail prices for their products. A Los Angeles maker of women's handbags is fighting this rule in Leegin Creative Leather Products v. PSKS, and a win could reshape parts of the retail industry.

It has been a good term for business, and it's likely to get even better this month.

Here are some additional major cases to be decided:

High schools and free speech: Do students have a right to hold up signs at school-sponsored events that carry messages that offend the principal? A case from Alaska involves a student and his banner promoting "Bong Hits 4 Jesus," but a ruling could broadly rewrite the free-speech rules in schools across the country (Morse v. Frederick).

Car searches: Is a passenger legally "seized" when police pull over the driver? No, said the California Supreme Court. The ruling in favor of the passenger from Northern California could be important if passengers are charged with a crime and want to challenge the stop as illegal (Brendlin v. California).

School recruiting: Do coaches have a free-speech right to contact student-athletes, or do state athletic associations have the authority to penalize high school teams for recruiting (Tennessee Secondary Schools v. Brentwood Academy)?

Union fees: Does a teachers' union have a right to use dues for political purposes unless a teacher objects (Washington v. Washington Education Association)?

Home-care workers: Are the tens of thousands of employees who provide "companionship services" in the homes of the elderly and infirm entitled to minimum wages and overtime pay (Long Island Care at Home v. Coke)?

Credit reports: When must insurers notify consumers they were charged higher rates because of a poor crediting rating (Safeco v. Burr)?

Investor suits: How much evidence of fraud is needed before investors can sue a company for their stock losses? Wall Street and the Bush administration want to make it harder for these suits to go forward (Tellabs v. Makor).

Initial public offerings: Can 10 of the largest investments banks be sued under the antitrust laws for allegedly rigging the price of stock offerings during the boom of the late 1990s (Credit Suisse v. Billing)?

David G. Savage writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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