When the Supreme Court begins its 2012-13 term on Monday, few expect its docket to match the drama that accompanied its ruling on ObamaCare in June, in which Chief Justice John Roberts joined the court's four liberals to uphold President Obama's signature domestic achievement — a day that will undoubtedly live in infamy among conservatives. However, the court still has its fair share of politically divisive cases, and court watchers say it's probable that the justices will accept cases touching on gay marriage and voting rights. Here, three cases to watch in the court's upcoming term:
1. Affirmative action could come to an end
On Oct. 10 the court will hear oral arguments for Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which many expect to bring about the court's most significant ruling on affirmative action in at least a decade. At issue is whether the University of Texas is discriminating against white students by taking race into consideration during the application process. The case had been brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student whose application was denied. "There were people in my class with lower grades, who weren't in all the activities I was in, who were accepted into UT," she tells NBC News. "And the only difference between us was the color of our skin." The Supreme Court last upheld affirmative action in universities in 2003, but has grown more conservative since then with the addition of Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito. Many expect the court to strike down affirmative action programs altogether. "I don't think anyone thinks affirmative action is long for this world," says Pamela Harris, a former Obama administration official.
2. The Voting Rights Act could be scaled back
The court is "very likely to hear a constitutional challenge to a central provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act," which outlawed voter discrimination, says David Cole at The New York Review of Books. The provision in question is Section 5, which requires certain states and localities with a history of racism to get federal clearance before changing voting procedures. Opponents say the provision is outdated, arguing that the "insidious and pervasive evil" of racism in the Deep South no longer exists. The provision's supporters point to laws recently passed by GOP-controlled legislatures that allegedly suppress minority voting. If the Supreme Court decides to take the case, the conservative wing will have to decide how far it wants to go in affirming a "colorblind" vision of society, in which any policy based on racial considerations, including affirmative action, would be a violation of the "Constitution's guarantee of equal protection of the law," says Cole.
3. A ruling on same-sex marriage is likely imminent
By the end of the term, the court "will almost certainly have decided whether gays and lesbians can marry in California," and whether the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is constitutional, says Bob Egelko at The San Francisco Chronicle. The court could decide as soon as Monday to accept challenges to DOMA and California's Proposition 8, both of which define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Republican supporters say striking down either DOMA or Prop 8 would be the height of judicial activism, robbing Congress and state voters from implementing their will. Such a decision would "ignite a decades-long firestorm that will make Roe v. Wade's disruption of American politics appear minor by comparison," says Ed Whelan at The National Review. Supporters of same-sex marriage say that DOMA and Prop 8 are clearly discriminatory, though some would prefer to legalize gay marriage through legislation.