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Supreme Court term begins with contentious topics

| Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, 7:39 p.m.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is beginning a new term with controversial issues that offer the court's conservative majority the chance to move aggressively to undo limits on campaign contributions, undermine claims of discrimination in housing and mortgage lending, and allow for more government-sanctioned prayer.

Assuming the government shutdown doesn't get in their way, the justices also will deal with a case that goes to the heart of the partisan impasse in Washington: whether and when the president may use recess appointments to fill key positions without Senate confirmation.

The court was unaffected for the first few days of the government shutdown, and there was no expectation that arguments set for October would have to be rescheduled.

The new term that starts Monday may be short on the sort of high-profile battles over health care and gay marriage that marked the past two years. But several cases ask the court to overrule prior decisions — bold action in an institution that relies on the power of precedent.

“There are an unusual number of cases going right to hot-button cultural issues and aggressive briefing on the conservative side asking precedents to be overruled,” said Georgetown University law professor Pamela Harris, who served in President Obama's Justice Department.

Paul Clement, a frequent advocate before the court and the top Supreme Court lawyer under President George W. Bush, agreed that the opportunity exists for dramatic precedent-busting decisions. But Clement said each case also offers the court “an off-ramp,” a narrower outcome that may be more in keeping with Chief Justice John Roberts' stated desire for incremental decision-making that bridges the court's ideological divide.

There is a familiar ring to several cases the justices will take up.

Campaign finance, affirmative action, legislative prayer and abortion clinic protests are all on the court's calendar. The justices will hear for the second time the case of Carol Anne Bond, a woman who was convicted under an anti-terrorism law for spreading deadly chemicals around the home of her husband's mistress.

The justices probably will decide this fall whether to resolve competing lower court decisions about the new health care law's requirement that employer-sponsored health plans include coverage of contraceptives.

An issue with a good chance to be heard involves the authority of police to search the contents of a cellphone found on someone they arrest. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said over the summer that the right to privacy in the digital age “is bound to come up in many forms” in the years ahead.

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