Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Sotomayor shows she's no Clarence Thomas as Supreme Court opens

WASHINGTON -- A recast Supreme Court kicked off its new season Monday, with novice Justice Sonia Sotomayor immediately taking center stage.

In just an hour, the court's newest justice asked more questions than Justice Clarence Thomas has asked over the course of several years. Sotomayor's aggressive role in a Fifth Amendment case, in turn, underscored how she could put her own stamp on a court whose 2009-2010 docket is still taking shape.

"The Supreme Court is already off to a notable start, and there is so much more to come," Caroline Fredrickson, the executive director of the American Constitution Society, a liberal lawyers organization, said even before inaugural oral argument Monday.

The 55-plus cases already scheduled for the coming months cover everything from gun rights and patent protection to free speech and the punishment of juveniles. The court is likely to accept another 25 or so cases before the 2009-10 term ends next June.

As always, some cases are acutely technical; dry as dust pension disputes, for instance. Others carry constitutional significance, a compelling set of facts or sometimes both.

On Tuesday, for instance, the court will consider the criminal conviction of a man who sold videotapes of pit bulls fighting. Virginia resident Robert J. Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in prison for violating a federal law that bans depictions of animal cruelty.

Congress passed the law in 1999 in response to reports about so-called "crush videos."

"A crush video is a depiction of women inflicting torture on animals with their bare feet or while wearing high-heeled shoes," the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained. "In some video depictions, the woman's voice can be heard talking to the animals in a kind of dominatrix patter."

Stevens -- joined by civil libertarians, book publishers and the entertainment industry, among others -- argues that the law infringes on free speech. The Obama administration defends the law as reasonable, saying that "the value of the speech" is outweighed by its "social costs."

An equally anticipated set of cases from Florida question whether it's cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

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