Law • Oct 2, 2011 at 3:00 am PDT • Views: 119
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, which has been focused in recent terms on the rights of corporations and on curbing big lawsuits, returns to the bench on Monday with a different agenda. Now, criminal justice is at the heart of the court’s docket, along with major cases on free speech and religious freedom.
“The docket seems to be changing,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy told reporters at a judicial conference in August.
“A lot of big civil cases are going to arbitration,” he said. “I don’t see as many of the big civil cases.”
Still, the shift in focus toward criminal and First Amendment cases will soon be obscured if, as expected, the justices agree to hear a challenge to the 2010 health care overhaul law. That case promises to be a once-in-a-generation blockbuster.
In the meantime, the justices will hear an extraordinary set of cases that together amount to a project that could overhaul almost every part of the criminal justice system.
The court will decide whether the police need a warrant to use advanced technology to track suspects, whether jails may strip-search people arrested for even the most minor offenses, whether defendants have a right to competent lawyers to help them decide whether to plead guilty, when eyewitness evidence may be used at trial, and what should happen when prosecutors withhold evidence.
“The Supreme Court has positioned itself to improve the quality of the criminal justice process from beginning to end,” said Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra University.
The court will continue its intense engagement with the First Amendment. But where earlier cases involved quirky issues like dog fights, funeral protests and the Seven Aphorisms of a fringe church called Summum, the marquee First Amendment cases this term involve issues of sweep and consequence.