Supreme Court Tackles Controversial Issues in New Term

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West façade of the Supreme Court Building
Source: Franz Jantzen, (accessed Sep. 30, 2011)

Forty-nine appeals are currently on the US Supreme Court’s schedule for the 2011-2012 term, which begins Monday Oct. 3, 2011. The high court’s docket is packed with controversial legal issues, ranging from police without search warrants attaching GPS tracking devices to cars to suspicionless prison strip searches for minor offenses.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Maples v. Thomas on Oct. 4, 2011 about whether a death row inmate should be held responsible for missing an appeals deadline because of his lawyers’ mistakes. The case centers on Cory Maples, an Alabama death row inmate convicted of murder in 1995. When Maples’s pro bono attorneys left their prominent New York law firm without telling him or the state, he missed a key appeals deadline and Judge Glenn E. Thompson of the Circuit Court in Morgan County, Alabama refused to allow his new attorneys to refile the appeal. Of the 34 states with the death penalty, Alabama is the only state that does not automatically provide its death row inmates with legal assistance to file appeals paperwork.

The court will also hear Zivotofsky v. Clinton, which concerns a 2003 federal passport law that challenges US policy of not taking a side in the debate of whether or not Jerusalem is part of Israel.

Animal cruelty will also be addressed, with the court deciding if California can ban the sale of pork from “downer pigs,” or pigs that are too feeble to walk.

“The only thing that would be missing from the most incredible term in the history of the court would be gay marriage,” veteran Supreme Court litigator and founder Thomas Goldstein told the San Francisco Chronicle. Although Goldstein believes gay marriage is at least a year away from being addressed by the Supreme Court, other observers believe that the numerous pending appeals in New York and California could lead the court to add gay marriage to the docket in coming months. As many as three dozen cases are expected to be added before February 2012, when the court traditionally settles its caseload.

One topic that is noticeably absent from the Supreme Court’s schedule is the 24 constitutional challenges to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Although health care reform is not among the first batch of 49 cases on the schedule, observers believe that as many as three appeals about the Mar. 2010 law will be heard by the high court. Another high-profile topic that may be added in the coming weeks is the constitutionality of Arizona’s Apr. 23, 2010 anti-immigration law. The number of high-profile controversial appeals that the Supreme Court will address in the new term is expected to play a role in 2012 presidential election debates.


Bill Mears, “Big Cases Await US Supreme Court’s 2011-12 Term,”, Sep. 30, 2011

Joan Biskupic, “Supreme Court Term Could Influence 2012 Election,” USA Today, Sep. 29, 2011