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Highly anticipated decisions on medical marijuana, Ten Commandments displays and Internet sharing of movies and music are still to come in the final weeks of the Supreme Court term. And then there’s perhaps the biggest story of all — whether the Court gets its first opening in a decade. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, 80, has been the focus of retirement speculation since he announced in October that he had thyroid cancer. Rehnquist has been working full-time and has given no indication of his plans, though most Court watchers believe he will step down. His departure likely would lead to a political fight over a successor who could reshape a Court divided 5-4 on the death penalty, affirmative action and gay rights. The Court’s opinions already are giving partisans plenty to talk about. “This term will be a blockbuster,” said Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who argues frequently before the high court. “The Court’s rulings on social issues and the role of government will definitely remind everyone of the significance of a single Supreme Court appointment.” The Court already has issued two of its more notable rulings — 5-4 opinions striking down mandatory sentencing guidelines as a violation of a defendant’s right to a jury trial and outlawing the death penalty for those who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. While the death penalty ruling was somewhat expected given earlier rulings narrowing the scope of capital punishment, some congressional Republicans blasted the opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy for citing international sentiment against executing juveniles. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, condemned the Reagan appointee’s work as “incredibly outrageous,” and others called for his impeachment. May and June traditionally are the Court’s busiest months and this year is no different. There are 35 opinions remaining before justices take a summer break. One of the most closely watched decisions involves whether states can shield medical marijuana users from federal prosecution on drug charges. The case, which was heard last November, pits the conservative anti-drug interests of the Bush administration against conservative principles of states’ rights. Since Rehnquist became chief justice in 1986, the Court has struck down federal laws dealing with gun possession near schools and violence against women on the grounds the activity was too local to justify federal intrusion. While many believe the Court will back the federal government in the marijuana case, its delay in issuing an opinion so far offers states’ rights advocates hope that justices are wary of further extending federal authority, said Pepperdine law professor Doug Kmiec, a former Justice Department official under President Reagan and the first President Bush. “It may suggest that the expansive assertion of government power asserted by the Bush administration was deeply troubling to the justices, or at least that the issue is so close that the wording of opinions is being examined and negotiated with far more than the usual care,” he said. Another emotional issue involves Ten Commandments displays. Justices will rule in a pair of cases asking whether such displays on government property violate the Constitution’s ban on “establishment” of religion. It’s the Court’s first review of the issue since 1980. Last year’s major church-state issue involved whether “under God” should be included in the Pledge of Allegiance recited in public schools. The Court punted on that case on technical grounds, but that’s not expected with the Ten Commandments cases. In fact, Court watchers say they wouldn’t be surprised if Rehnquist, an ardent supporter of religious freedom, writes an opinion upholding the displays. Such a ruling would be seen by many as a fitting cap to his 33-year career at the high court. Other major rulings expected soon concern whether states can bar interstate wine sales over the Internet — a dispute testing the limits of state power in regulating alcohol — and whether the government can force beef producers to pay fees that are used to promote the industry, even if producers disagree with the method. Justices also will rule in a property rights case that asks whether cities may seize people’s homes to make way for economic development projects. And it will decide a big-money dispute over whether Internet file-sharing services should be held responsible when their customers illegally swap songs and movies online. How the justices rule in the file-sharing case could redefine how consumers can watch television shows and films and listen to songs that increasingly are delivered in digital formats. Supporters of file-sharing technology say a ruling against them would spur expensive lawsuits that hamper the development of new devices. “From a political point of view, it’s a significant term,” said Mark Tushnet, a professor at Georgetown Law Center who recently wrote a book on the Rehnquist court. And the significance will grow should it, as Tushnet predicts, include Rehnquist’s retirement, an announcement sure to kick off a brutal ideological fight on Capitol Hill. Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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