Justice Sonia Sotomayor taking active role

New Justice Sonia Sotomayor was very much in evidence as the Supreme Court began its new term.


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WASHINGTON — A recast Supreme Court kicked off its new season Monday, with novice Justice Sonia Sotomayor immediately taking center stage.

In just an hour, the court’s newest justice asked more questions than Justice Clarence Thomas asks over the course of several years. Sotomayor’s aggressive role in a Fifth Amendment case, in turn, underscored how she could put her own stamp on a court whose 2009-2010 docket is still taking shape.

The 55-plus cases already scheduled for the coming months cover everything from gun rights and patent protection to free speech and the punishment of juveniles.

The court is likely to accept another 25 or so cases before the 2009-10 term ends next June.

As always, some cases are acutely technical; dry as dust pension disputes, for instance.

Others carry constitutional significance, a compelling set of facts or sometimes both.

On Tuesday, for instance, the court will consider the criminal conviction of a man who sold videotapes of pit bulls fighting. Virginia resident Robert J. Stevens was sentenced to 37 months in prison for violating a 1999 federal law that bans depictions of animal cruelty.

Stevens — joined by civil libertarians, book publishers and the entertainment industry, among others — argues that the law infringes on free speech.

The Obama administration defends the law as reasonable, saying that “the value of the speech” is outweighed by its “social costs.”

An equally anticipated set of cases from Florida question whether it’s cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a juvenile to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Thirteen-year-old Joe Harris Sullivan, who already had a lengthy criminal record, was convicted in 1989 of raping a 72-year-old Pensacola woman.

Seventeen-year-old Terrance Jamar Graham, who likewise had a lengthy record, committed a home invasion robbery in Jacksonville while on probation for another violent offense. Both were sentenced to life without possibility of parole.

In a 2005 opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court ruled out executions of individuals for crimes committed while they were minors. The new cases, to be heard Nov. 9, question whether the same reasoning about juvenile immaturity should apply to noncapital punishment.