The justices are being asked to decide the constitutionality of the landmark health-care act, the ability of states to enforce strict immigration laws and whether the government can continue to monitor the airwaves for indecency.
The court could also reopen the question of affirmative action in college admissions, rule on the rights of gay adoptive parents and decide whether the blindingly fast pace of modern technology has reshaped Americans’ notion of privacy.
“Whatever the last term lacked in blockbuster cases, here’s one that’s really for the ages,” said Paul D. Clement, solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration.
Clement will play no small part in the term’s deliberations. He represents the states challenging the Affordable Care Act and will defend Arizona’s tough anti-immigration law, whose most controversial parts have been blocked by lower courts.
The potential of the term, said Steven R. Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, is not measured in the cases the court has already accepted but by “what the court might take.”
And while justices recoil from the idea that politics play a role in their decisions even to accept a case, it is clear that the court’s actions this year will be scrutinized through the lens of an election year.
Partisan groups on both ends of the political spectrum increasingly analyze the justices’ public speeches, private finances and past affiliations to highlight what they see as bias. Another goal is to seek their recusal in controversial cases.
Liberal groups and some Democratic members of Congress are seeking investigations into Justice Clarence Thomas’s failure to list on financial-disclosure statements that his wife, Virginia Thomas, was employed in the past by conservative organizations opposed to the health-care law. Her work was common knowledge at the time, and he has since corrected the forms.
Conservative groups question how involved Justice Elena Kagan was in forming the Obama administration’s legal defense of the health-care law when she was solicitor general, the government’s chief appellate lawyer. Kagan said during her confirmation hearings she did not play an active role.
Justices decide for themselves whether they have a conflict that requires recusal — there is no mechanism for replacing them if they do — and there is no indication that either Thomas or Kagan will opt out of deliberations on the health-care act.
It would be highly unlikely that the court would not accept the Obama administration’s request to review conflicting lower-court decisions on the constitutionality of the centerpiece of the health-care law, the “individual mandate” that requires virtually every American to carry health insurance.