Court's biggest cases to come in next session

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court entered its holiday intermission with the starkest drama put off until the second act.

When justices return on Jan. 11 for their next oral arguments, they will barely have scratched the surface of the 2009 term. They have issued only four decisions so far, none dealing with the cases for which the term is likely to be remembered.

With more than 50 scheduled cases yet to be heard or decided, and other cases still to be added, some of these pending questions are pretty fundamental.

Does the government violate the First Amendment when it bans corporations from spending their own money on political campaigns? Do cities and states violate the Second Amendment when they ban gun possession?

Other pending questions are intriguing because of the facts.

Can Congress prohibit videos that purportedly depict animal cruelty, such as one that shows pit bulls attacking a domestic pig? Does the National Football League's tightly controlled licensing of hats and apparel violate antitrust laws?

In addition to specific cases, the coming months will shed light on the future of the nation's highest court itself.

Many court watchers expect Justice John Paul Stevens to announce his retirement, as the 89-year-old jurist hasn't hired his full complement of law clerks for next year. At the other end of the career spectrum, the new year will further illuminate the evolving role of the court's newest member, Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Some things already are clear.

Since she heard her first oral argument on Sept. 9, Sotomayor has proved to be an active participant. She's asked questions or made comments from the bench about 480 times, a McClatchy Newspapers review of oral argument transcripts found.

The most anticipated upcoming argument might come on March 2, when justices consider the case of McDonald v. City of Chicago.

The case challenges Chicago's handgun ban as a violation of the Second Amendment's right to bear arms. The city's ban is essentially identical to a District of Columbia handgun ban that the Supreme Court struck down in 2008 on a 5-4 vote. Now, the justices must decide for the first time whether the Second Amendment applies to cities and states, as well as to federal jurisdictions such as Washington, D.C.