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The Supreme Court returns next week for the second half of its term with some of the biggest issues yet to be decided: the juvenile death penalty, Ten Commandments displays and the future of its ailing leader. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, has been working mainly from home since October, when he announced he had thyroid cancer. Since then, his only public appearance was to swear in President Bush last month. Little is known about Rehnquist’s condition, though he appeared frail. The Court has not said whether he will return even part-time to the bench when the justices resume work Tuesday. “It’s symbolically important that he return,” said Stephen Wermiel, a law professor at American University, noting it would help dispel concerns that Rehnquist isn’t sufficiently engaged in his job. “It will be an important guidepost to see if he will come back at all.” Speculation is rampant that Rehnquist will step down, though when that might happen is anybody’s guess. Some believe he will wait until the end of the session in June so any confirmation battle over a high court nominee doesn’t handcuff Congress at the beginning of Bush’s second term. Due to his cancer treatment, Rehnquist did not participate in decisions from the dozen cases heard in November. However, the Court said he intends to take part in the December and January cases by relying on briefs and transcripts of the arguments. In the November cases, Rehnquist has said he will step in to vote if the other eight justices are deadlocked. Justices could rule as early as next week on whether the Constitution allows states to execute juvenile killers, a question that could strike down the practice in 19 states. The Court is closely divided on death penalty issues; the question is which side will get the majority in this case, which was heard in October while Rehnquist was still on the bench. Other major cases already argued but yet to be decided involve whether the federal government can prosecute people who use marijuana medicinally, the scope of the landmark Title IX gender equity law, and whether states can bar interstate wine sales over the Internet. Justices will hear several arguments this spring on religion and property rights, including a case Tuesday that will decide whether cash-strapped cities may seize people’s homes to make way for economic development projects. The Court also will revisit the death penalty in late March when it considers how U.S. authorities should deal with foreign nationals facing charges that could result in execution. And it will hear a big-money Internet dispute that questions whether file-sharing services should be held responsible when their customers illegally swap songs and movies online. The emotionally charged Ten Commandments issue will be argued in two cases the court will hear March 2. The question for justices is whether government displays violate the Constitution’s ban on “establishment” of religion. The case offers Rehnquist another chance to leave a constitutional mark on the role of religion in public life. Last year justices punted on whether “under God” should be included in the Pledge of Allegiance recited daily in public schools nationwide. They rejected the case on technical grounds. “There’s going to be a lot of fireworks here,” said Richard Garnett, a former Rehnquist clerk who teaches law at Notre Dame. “I’m sure the chief justice would very much like to be able to participate fully in this term’s cases since so many are closely connected to his constitutional legacy, such as religious freedom.” In the coming weeks, justices will consider whether to hear the Bush administration’s challenge to Oregon’s unique assisted suicide law, and a challenge to the government’s right to put terror suspect Zacarias Moussaoui on trial even though he had no access to potentially favorable al-Qaida witnesses. The Supreme Court also expects to receive soon a government appeal of a lower court ruling letting colleges limit activities of military recruiters on campus because of the military’s ban on openly gay people. But if accepted for review, those cases won’t be heard until the new term starting in October. If Rehnquist does step down as expected, a Court divided 5-4 on issues including the death penalty, affirmative action and gay rights could by then have its first new member in more than a decade. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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