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Health Care Among Hot Topics Awaiting High Court


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. The Supreme Court returns to the bench this week after its summer recess. The new term begins tomorrow with some 50 cases on the docket. Several of them deal with hot-button political issues. Joining us for a primer on what to expect is NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Nina, welcome.

NINA TOTENBERG: Delighted to be here.

CORNISH: So, first off, health care. This past week, the Obama administration joined opponents of its health care law in asking the Supreme Court to review whether the mandate to purchase the coverage is constitutional. So, what does that mean in terms of timing?

TOTENBERG: Well, this case will likely be argued if it's accepted by the court, which is almost a certainty at this point. It'll likely be argued in late February or March. It'll be decided by the end of the term, which is the end of June usually, just months before the presidential election.


CORNISH: Ha, ha. Yeah, I was about to say, that seems like pretty odd timing. Would you care to do some political prognostication on that?

TOTENBERG: Well, I can't predict how the court will rule. That would be a fool's errand. But I do think it's worth noting that for President Obama, he can win by winning and he can also win by losing, although I'm sure he doesn't feel that way at the moment. If he actually wins, it's a huge victory for him and a vindication. But if he loses, it takes the steam out of the issue, an issue that really drives his opponents to the polls. And if he loses and the rest of the bill is upheld, insurance companies will go nuts, because the way this whole program is funded is by having a huge pool of people who buy insurance. And if you don't have the huge pool, insurance companies won't be able to figure out how to pay for it, and they will then putting pressure on Congress saying, hey, here's this big program - we can't insure people unless we have a big pool.

CORNISH: So, it launches the discussion all over again.


CORNISH: Nina, I heard you talk about this being a gonzo term. And what exactly do you mean by that?

TOTENBERG: Well, I might be saying it's a gonzo term 'cause last term was such a snoozer, that I wondered if they would change my beat. But almost every hot-button social issue in America is at least headed for the Supreme Court. The only question is whether those cases are going to get there this term. There's immigration. The Arizona law that, among other things, requires local and state law enforcement officers to demand papers of anyone they suspect is here illegally and to detain them. That law most likely will make it to the court this term. Then there's some issues around gay marriage. I think the California gay marriage case will not make it to the court this term. But conceivably one of the test cases involving the Defense of Marriage Act will make it. The DOMA, as you recall, is short D-O-M-A, DOMA, for the federal law that bars recognition of gay marriage even in states where same-sex marriage is legal.

CORNISH: Are there other interesting cases that are already at the court?

TOTENBERG: Well, there's a case testing whether police have to get a warrant to put a GPS tracking device on your car. There's a case testing whether jails may automatically strip search every person arrested and taken to jail no matter how minor the offense, including a traffic offense. There are lots of cases that are interesting like that.

CORNISH: And, of course, I don't want to leave out Fox TV's challenge of the FCC's indecency policy. Tell us a little bit more about that case and what's going on.

TOTENBERG: It's about people being vulgar on TV and radio. In this case, at the Billboard Awards broadcast on Fox, broadcast that earn Fox big fines for violating the FCC's ban on indecency. And the question at the very least is whether the indecency ban is so vague, so diffuse - what is indecency - that nobody can know in advance with certainty when they're violating it. At the most, the court could even decide that in this day and age when there's so many channels on TV, it doesn't make sense anymore to let the FCC regulate what broadcasters put on the air. And it's a big First Amendment issue.

CORNISH: Well, Nina, thanks. It looks like you are going to have a very busy year.

TOTENBERG: It does look like I'm going to have a very busy year.

CORNISH: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thank you so much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.