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

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 5, 2009 

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.

Thirteen-year-old Joe Harris Sullivan, who already had a lengthy criminal record, was convicted in 1989 of raping a 72-year-old woman. Seventeen-year-old Terrance Jamar Graham, who likewise had a lengthy record, committed a home invasion robbery while on probation for another violent offense. Both were sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

In a 2005 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled out executions of individuals for crimes committed while they were minors. The new cases, to be heard Nov. 9, question whether the same reasoning about juvenile immaturity should apply to noncapital punishment.

The imprisonment cases have attracted particularly impassioned briefs, including one urging mercy and rehabilitation filed by self-described "former juvenile offenders" including actor Charles Dutton and former Republican Senate Minority Whip Alan Simpson.

"When Simpson was a juvenile ... (he) was convicted of a serious federal offense and engaged in other conduct that could have led to other serious criminal offenses and, under certain regimes, a potential life sentence," the brief says. "In Simpson's words to this court, 'I was a monster.' "

So far, the court's 2009-10 docket lacks some familiar controversies, including abortion, the death penalty and Guantanamo Bay detentions. That could still change, particularly if the justices agree to hear a pending case called Kiyemba v. Obama, involving the power of a federal judge to order the release of Chinese Uighurs from Guantanamo.

Demonstrators dressed in orange prison jumpsuits and black hoods gathered on the Supreme Court steps Monday morning before the first case was heard, calling attention to the treatment of war-on-terrorism detainees.

The court heard two hourlong oral arguments Monday morning and postponed a third, which involved a water rights dispute between North Carolina and South Carolina. Though the cases marked the formal start of the term, Sotomayor first participated last month in a hearing on a campaign finance challenge that was carried over from the last term.

In last month's hearing, as well as the first case Monday, involving so-called Miranda rights to stay silent unless represented by an attorney, Sotomayor proved herself a dogged questioner. She spoke nearly three dozen times Monday during the argument in the case called Maryland v. Shatzer.

"Could I have a clarification of the facts for a moment?" Sotomayor asked at one point, and then pursued the attorney with four specific follow-up questions.

Thomas, as is his habit, was silent throughout the morning session.

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