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Familiar, divisive social issues on Supreme Court agenda

This file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C.  AP Images

This file photo shows the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. AP Images

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s new term began Monday with no cross words between the justices, although a steady stream of divisive social issues awaits them in the coming months.

In their first public meeting since a number of high-profile decisions in June displayed passionate, sometimes barbed disagreement, the justices were deferential to each other even as they engaged in typically aggressive questioning of lawyers.

The court also rejected hundreds of appeals that piled up over the summer, including one from the Obama administration that claimed it will have a much tougher time prosecuting insider-trading cases because of a lower court ruling from New York. San Jose, California, also lost its bid to lure the Athletics from Oakland over the objection of Major League Baseball.

Without comment, the high court left in place a decision by the federal appeals court in New York last year that threw out the insider trading convictions of two high-profile hedge fund managers. The federal government’s pursuit of insider trading on Wall Street resulted in more than 80 arrests and 70 convictions over several years.

Just after 10 a.m., Chief Justice John Roberts formally closed the previous term, most notable for its decision extending same-sex marriage nationwide, and began the new one.

As often happens, 82-year-old Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the first justice to speak in a case that involves a California woman who lost her legs in a horrific accident after she fell while attempting to board a train in Innsbruck, Austria. The issue is whether she can sue the state-owned Austrian railway in U.S. courts.

Justice Ginsburg sounded skeptical that the lawsuit could proceed. “There is one contact with the United States. A pass is bought from a travel agent in Massachusetts, a pass covering 30-odd railroads. That’s all that happened in the United States,” Justice Ginsburg said during the hour-long argument.

All the other justices, except Clarence Thomas, eventually joined in the questioning and most seemed to agree with Justice Ginsburg.

Consensus almost certainly will give way to division when the court takes up cases later this term that deal with abortion, religious objections to birth control, race in college admissions and the power of public-sector unions. Cases on immigration and state restrictions on voting also could make it to the court in the next nine months.

The term will play out against the backdrop of the presidential campaign, in which some candidates are talking pointedly about the justices and the prospect of replacing some of them in the next few years. Four justices are in their 80s or late 70s, led by Justice Ginsburg.

Commentators on the left and right say the lineup of cases suggests that conservatives will win more often than they will lose over the next few months, in contrast to the liberal side’s success last term in gay marriage, health care and housing discrimination, among others.

And 78-year-old Justice Anthony Kennedy will continue to be the pivotal vote in many cases that split the court between its liberal and conservative blocs.


Summary of most orders issued Monday

— Left in place a lower court ruling that made it tougher for the federal government to prosecute people for trading on leaked inside information.

— Declined to hear an appeal from former University of Virginia lacrosse player George W. Huguely V convicted of killing his ex-girlfriend.

— Left in place lower court rulings that dismissed the city of San Jose’s antitrust claims against Major League Baseball, which blocked the northern California city’s bid to lure baseball’s Athletics from Oakland.

— Rejected an appeal from Indian tribes and Jim Thorpe’s sons to move the remains of the athletic great from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma.

— Declined to hear an appeal from New York Rep. Charles Rangel seeking to overturn his 2010 censure for financial wrongdoing.

— Refused to hear a dispute over the constitutionality of a law that gives Chrysler dealerships — shut down during the company’s 2009 bankruptcy — a chance to be restored to the dealer network through federal arbitration.

— Turned away an appeal from Kelly Rindfleisch, a former aide to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker who was convicted of campaigning on taxpayers’ time.

— Refused to hear an appeal by drivers who challenged discounted bridge tolls offered to select groups of New York City residents who cross the city’s Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.

— Left in place the death sentence for 72-year-old death row inmate Brandon Astor Jones in Georgia, who was convicted of killing a convenience store clerk in suburban Atlanta in 1979.

— Rebuffed an appeal from Kenneth Fults, an African-American man on Georgia’s death row who said racial bias deprived him of a fair trial because a white juror used a racial slur.

— Rejected an appeal from Quicken Loans over a $2.17 million punitive damage award stemming from a loan the company made to a West Virginia borrower for more than her house was worth.

The Associated Press