WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court began a new term on Monday featuring blockbuster cases on Guantanamo prisoners and the death penalty, and it rejected some 2,000 appeals that had piled up during its summer recess.
Returning to the bench, the nine justices also heard arguments on Washington state’s primary election system and whether parents of disabled students can get reimbursed for sending their children to private schools.
Legal experts are watching this term to see the future direction of the highest U.S. court that has been closely divided, with a 5-4 conservative majority bolstered by President George W. Bush’s two appointees -- Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.
The court will rule on whether the hundreds of detainees at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba can use American courts to challenge their indefinite confinement and on the current lethal injection method of execution.
The term that ended in June was marked by a sharp shift to the right on divisive social issues like abortion and civil rights law. Legal experts are divided on whether the trend will continue this term, an issue already being discussed in the November 2008 presidential race.
In Boston, Republican candidate Mitt Romney said cases this term could dramatically affect the “lives of all Americans” and he vowed to name justices “in the strict constructionist mold” of Roberts, Alito and their fellow conservatives, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The term opening coincided with the release of the new Thomas memoir in which he angrily denounced his former aide who accused him of sexual harassment during his 1991 confirmation hearings and liberal interest groups.
As a child growing up in the South, he feared the lynch mobs of the Ku Klux Klan, Thomas wrote in the book, “My Grandfather’s Son.”
“My worst fears had come to pass not in Georgia, but in Washington, D.C., where I was being pursued not by bigots in white robes, but by left-wing zealots draped in flowing sanctimony,” he said.
In rejecting some 2,000 appeals, the court refused to review the case of a Guantanamo prisoner, Salim Ahmed Hamdan, who was Osama bin Laden’s driver in Afghanistan. He wanted his case included with the others brought by the Guantanamo prisoners.
The court rejected two religion cases. One involved whether religious groups can be required to provide insurance coverage for employee contraceptives and the other concerned the barring of a religious group from worshiping in a public library meeting room.
The court also turned down appeals by slave descendants arguing their lawsuits seeking reparations from railroads, banks, insurers and tobacco companies can go forward.
And for the second time, the justices rejected a challenge to Alabama’s sex toy ban. A group of individuals who use or sell the sexual devices argued the law violated their constitutional rights.