Era of Roberts starts with social issues

The U.S. Supreme Court, led by a new chief justice for the first time in 19 years, will confront abortion rights and assisted suicide in an early test of President George W. Bush's drive to move the court to the right.

New Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.'s first nine-month term, which starts today in Washington, also features fights over religious freedom, military recruiting, campaign finance and a series of cases that lawyers say are likely to put new limits on suits against companies. The business cases include a price-fixing suit against oil companies Chevron Corp. and Royal Dutch Shell Plc.

"It's not a bad Rohrschach test in the sense that there is a good cross-section of doctrines that are at play during the term, including some very hot-button issues," says Theodore Olson, a Washington lawyer with Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher who served as Bush's solicitor general, the government's top courtroom lawyer.

The first major showdown begins this week when the court hears arguments on a Bush administration bid to block an Oregon law permitting doctor-assisted suicide.

The law, the first of its kind in the U.S., lets doctors prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients. The measure has allowed more than 200 suicides since going into effect in 1997, three years after winning approval from Oregon voters, reports Bloomberg.

According to CNN, the 50-year-old Roberts will lead a bench on which seven of the current nine members are over 65. Only Clarence Thomas, at 57, approaches him in age.

When a new justice arrives there is "a certain amount of delicate politicking" among the justices, Lazarus said.

"Both sides are going to be feeling out Chief Justice Roberts to see what kinds of arguments appeal to him," he said. "What kind of person is he? Is he going to be someone who is going to be harder-edged, like a [Antonin] Scalia or a Thomas, or he is going to be the kind of very collegial person he's reputed to be?"

One thing that will help Roberts in the transition is that he clerked for then-Associate Justice William Rehnquist in 1980-81, and colleagues say the young lawyer learned valuable lessons in law and leadership from his mentor.

Rehnquist died September 3 after battling thyroid cancer for months. Two days later, Roberts was nominated to replace him.

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