Some observers say the term of the U.S. Supreme Court that began Monday will be more nuts-and-bolts housekeeping than an occasion for landmark jurisprudence. But when housekeeping touches issues such as the relative power and scope of the national government compared to state governments, federal sentencing guidelines and the permissible scope of eminent domain, it can touch many lives.
Besides, the high court always accepts a few more cases after its term has begun, and sometimes these are the most dramatic.
Among the highlights:
• On Monday the court heard arguments on cases arising from its decision last June to invalidate a sentence imposed by a judge in a state court based on information the jury had not heard when considering guilt or innocence. That decision brought into question the federal sentencing guidelines put in place by Congress in 1984 and updated periodically. The entire federal “guidelines” could be dumped and people sentenced under the old ones might have their cases reviewed, a potentially massive undertaking.
• Raich v. Ashcroft, brought by a medical marijuana patient in Oakland and scheduled to be heard Nov. 29, will test the principles of both conservative and liberal justices.
Angel Raich, who has an inoperable brain tumor, uses marijuana with a doctor’s recommendation and grows her own. This is legal in some states, but federal agents have been raiding homes of medical marijuana patients, claiming federal law imposes absolute prohibition of marijuana use. Angel Raich’s lawsuit contends that since her marijuana supply involves no money changing hands and nothing remotely resembling interstate commerce, Congress has no power to regulate it.
• The court, led by Chief Justice William Rehnquist, has been promoting a New Federalism, reaffirming the power of states to act independently of the federal government. “Will the conservatives on the court stick to principle,” asked Roger Pilon, head of constitutional studies at the Cato Institute, “and find there is no federal power to interfere with state law, even in a drug case? Will the liberals continue to insist that there are no limits on Congress’ regulatory power in a case involving sympathetic plaintiffs who are asking to use a drug their physicians have recommended?”
• In Kelo v. New London the court will revisit the question of whether government can seize property and turn it over to another private owner. In Veneman v. Livestock Marketing, it will decide whether the government can force farmers to help pay for industry promotional advertising. Granhom v. Heald should decide to what extent wine can be shipped in interstate commerce.
All this might not be earth-shattering, but it should be interesting.