Justices Open Big Term With New Human Rights Case

The Supreme Court in Washington.
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"Is it the case that a modern-day I.G. Farben would be exempt from the Alien Tort Statute?" Hoffman said.

Business interests argue they are being subjected to claims over the bad behavior of foreign regimes, which are shielded from lawsuits here under U.S. law.

The court first heard the case in February to consider whether businesses could be sued under the law. But the justices asked for additional arguments about whether the law could be applied to any conduct that takes place abroad.

A decision is expected by spring.

The first blockbuster case on the court's calendar is Oct. 10, when the justices will hear arguments in a fight over the University of Texas' affirmative action program. Texas uses multiple factors, including community service, work experience, extracurricular activities, awards and race, to help fill 20 to 25 percent of the spots in its freshman classes. The outcome could further limit or even end the use of racial preferences in college admissions.

The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.

Several federal courts have agreed that the provision of the law is unconstitutional, a situation that practically ensures the high court will step in.

A separate appeal asks the justices to sustain California's Proposition 8, the amendment to the state Constitution that outlawed gay marriage in the nation's largest state. Federal courts in California have struck down the amendment.

The justices may not consider whether to hear the gay marriage issue until November.

Another hot topic with appeals pending before the high court, and more soon to follow, is the future of a cornerstone law of the civil rights movement.

In 2006, Congress overwhelmingly approved, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation extending for 25 more years a critical piece of the Voting Rights Act. It requires states and local governments with a history of racial and ethnic discrimination, mainly in the South, to get advance approval either from the Justice Department or the federal court in Washington before making any changes that affect elections.

The court spoke skeptically about the provision in a 2009 decision, but left it mostly unchanged. Now, however, cases from Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas could prompt the court to deal head-on with the issue of advance approval. The South Carolina and Texas cases involve voter identification laws; a similar Indiana law was previously upheld by the court.

It is unclear when the justices will decide whether to hear arguments in those cases. Arguments themselves would not take place until next year.

The court itself has largely been absent as an issue on the presidential campaign trail. But the justices could become enmeshed in election disputes, even before the ballots are counted. Lawsuits in Ohio over early voting and provisional ballots appear the most likely to find their way to the justices before the Nov. 6 election, said Richard Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine law school.

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