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A woman holds a Bible as she prays on the front steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday. The new term includes cases on gay marriage and affirmative action.
Carolyn Kaster/ASSOCIATED PRESS
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Date published: 10/2/2012
WASHINGTON--The Supreme Court plunged into its new term Monday with a high-stakes dispute between businesses and human rights groups over accountability for foreign atrocities. The next nine months hold the prospect for major rulings on affirmative action, gay marriage and voting rights.
The term that concluded in June set a high bar for drama and significance, and the new one holds considerable potential as well. Cases involving some of the most emotional issues in American life are likely to be decided after voters choose a president and new Congress next month.
Meeting on the first Monday in October, as required by law, the justices entered the crowded marble courtroom for the first time since their momentous decision in late June that upheld President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
The decisive vote in favor of Obamacare, Chief Justice John Roberts was smiling as he led the justices into the courtroom just after 10 a.m. The conservative chief justice will be watched closely in the coming months for any new indications of a willingness to side with the court's liberals, as he did in the health care case.
The lineup of justices was the same as in June, but the bench had a slightly different look nonetheless. Justice Antonin Scalia was without the glasses he no longer needs following cataract surgery over the summer.
The exterior of the building also looked different. The familiar columns are sheathed in scaffolding, which itself is covered in fabric made to look like the iconic front of the court.
Roberts formally opened the term, and the court turned quickly to its first argument, which could have far-reaching implications.
The dispute involves a lawsuit against Royal Dutch Petroleum, or Shell Oil, over claims that the company was complicit in murder and other abuses committed by the Nigerian government against its citizens in the oil-rich Niger Delta.
Human rights groups are warily watching the case because it would be a major setback if the court were to rule that foreign victims could not use American courts, under a 1789 law, to seek accountability and money damages for what they have been through.
The justices appeared ready to impose some limits, but it was unclear how far the court would go to shield businesses and perhaps individuals as well, from human rights lawsuits under the 223-year-old Alien Tort Statute.
A decision is expected by spring.
The first blockbuster case on the court's calendar is Oct. 10, when the justices will hear arguments in a fight over the University of Texas' affirmative action program. Texas uses multiple factors, including community service, work experience, extracurricular activities, awards and race, to help fill 20 to 25 percent of the spots in its freshman classes. The outcome could further limit or even end the use of racial preferences in college admissions.
The court also is expected to confront gay marriage in some form. Several cases seek to guarantee federal benefits for legally married same-sex couples. A provision of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act deprives same-sex couples of a range of federal benefits available to heterosexual couples.