Lights, (No) Camera, Action!

Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia, left, and Anthony Kennedy, center above, walk out of St. Matthew the Apostle Church after attending the annual Red Mass in Washington Sunday, Oct. 1., 2006. The worship service is traditionally held the Sunday before the Supreme Court's new term. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) AP

By CBS News legal analyst Andrew Cohen


If we rated Supreme Court terms the way we rate television shows, the coming session would already be labeled a "Can't-Miss Blockbuster Hit!"

The Justices will tackle between now and June many of the major hot-button themes that keep Americans talking at the water cooler: cases involving abortion rights, the environment, sentencing rules, and affirmative action. And they will do so while two of them still are wet behind the ears, relatively speaking, in the world of high justice.

It's so sad, then, that the Justices persist in denying the rest of us the chance to catch their act on television. Just imagine the ratings.

Plot lines like the future of global warming! Drama like the validity late-term abortion restrictions! Watch action figures like Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr. learn how to lead! Get suspense and intrigue from Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.—will he or won't he... vote the same way his predecessor, Sandra Day O'Connor, did on two of the biggest fights of the term?

The storylines write themselves and one thing is certain. In one way or the other, we will think very differently of the Roberts Court as a whole, and several of the Justices individually, when this raucous ritual ends come the last week of June.

The cases that no doubt will get the most media coverage will be the two joined abortion rights cases, scheduled for oral argument next month, involving Congress' latest effort to restrict the late-term abortion procedure that its opponents call "partial-birth" abortion. The Court effectively avoided a substantive abortion ruling last term—this term it won't be able to.

The case that ought to get the most media coverage is the challenge by 12 states to the way the Environmental Protection Agency is regulating the emissions of air pollutants that cause global warming. A ruling against the EPA could create the legal impetus to force the Administration to actually do something to solve the problem.

The cases that likely will impact the most Americans in the shortest period are the two "affirmative action" disputes the Justices will hear argument upon on the same day in early December.

The cases that most lawyers and judges will be following will be the ones involving criminal sentencing rules—which could theoretically overturn the sentences of thousands of federal prisoners.

Otherwise, the term consists of the typically small assortment of cases—so far Chief Justice Roberts is keeping the docket as lean numbers-wise as his predecessor had made it-- that no one cares about until one side or the other loses.

But you don't want to read or hear about those cases. You want to read about the late-term abortion cases. Given the court's past record, those cases, Gonzales v. Carhart, and Gonzales v. Planned Parenthood, essentially come down to Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

No one will be surprised if Justice Alito casts a vote in favor of the federal law that outlaws late-term abortions even in cases in which the mother's health is at stake. That "health" exception was ratified in 2000 by the Supreme Court, with Justice O'Connor casting the fifth and deciding vote. She's gone. The big question is whether Justice Anthony Kennedy will take her place.

  • Joel Roberts

Comments

CBSN Live

pop-out
Live Video

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.