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Hanna: Supreme Court season

09/17/09 7:55AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(HOST) In observation of Constitution Day, Vermont Law School Professor and commentator Cheryl Hanna offers a preview of the upcoming Supreme Court term and some developments we can expect to see over the coming year.

(HANNA) Today is Constitution Day, and if you're at a school that receives federal funds, you'll be learning something about our founding document. Of course, what most lawyers soon figure out is that all that really matters is what the United States Supreme Court thinks about the Constitution - so it's a perfect day to speculate a bit about the coming session.

While normally we'd have to wait until the first Monday in October to get a glimpse of the newest configuration of the Court, we were treated to a sneak preview last week, when the Court reheard arguments in a case involving Hillary:The Movie. The case asks whether groups like corporations and labor unions that finance and distribute movies during campaign season are subject to campaign finance laws - a perfect start to what is likely to be a highly politicized court term.

The case should sound familiar to Vermonters because a few a few years ago the Court struck down our campaign finance law as an unconstitutional violation of free speech. The same tension between freedom of expression and controlling campaign contributions is at issue here.

This is Justice Sonia Sotomayor's first Supreme Court case, and its outcome will indicate where she may stand on many of the culture war cases coming before the Court this term. She certainly wasn't shy in oral argument; she jumped right into the fray and questioned whether groups like Citizens United, which aired the unflattering portray of Hillary Clinton while she was running for president, should be given carte blanche to spend their money to get out their political messages.  

Three of the Court's conservative justices have already expressed their desire to reverse precedent and side with free speech, and it's likely Justices Roberts and Alito will follow suit.  Will the Court, once again, split 5-4? We'll have to wait and see.

Everyone will be watching Sotomayor closely, not just because she's new and the first Hispanic on the Court, but primarily because everything she does will be scrutinized with an eye towards supporting or opposing President Obama's next nominee.  

And it's likely he'll get another court appointment soon.  Justice John Paul Stevens, who will turn 90 years old in April, has hired only one clerk for the 2010 term. That's a sure signal this is Stevens' last year on the bench.

So, get ready, Senator Leahy! As chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he'll once again be a major player in determining our next justice.

So far, there are no cases originating in Vermont on this year's docket, although any day there could be a decision from the Second Circuit on whether a Vermont law that prohibited a Rutland man from putting "John 3:16" on his license plate is constitutional.

This one may make it all the way.

You can bet I'll be watching this case closely.

In the meantime, a happy Constitution Day to all!
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