THE BLOG
10/04/2016 07:57 am ET Updated Oct 05, 2017

The New Supreme Court Term: Blockbusters? Maybe Not. Significant? No Question.

The Washington Post via Getty Images

Some legal observers predict the new Supreme Court Term will be a snooze because the docket lacks hot button social issue cases -- the fate of marriage equity, for example, or a challenge to the Affordable Care Act, President Obama's signature legislative accomplishment. From my perspective, that's a narrow view that ignores the social, political and economic import of many cases confronting the justices this term.

Every case the high court hears is significant because, as the final arbiter of the law, its decisions have an impact on entire classes of people, businesses or government. This term, the court will grapple with a number of issues that couldn't be more relevant to the American experience in the second decade of the 21st Century. Racial bias in the criminal justice system, the growing political power of minority voters, and the accountability of predatory banks are at the center of this term's most interesting cases.

The court may also be hamstrung in some instances by the absence of its ninth justice. The Senate's unprecedented refusal to consider any nominee of President Obama to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia may well result in some tie votes that will delay justice for all affected by the issue in question. The court was unable to resolve four cases after Scalia died in the middle of the last term, and just yesterday, deepened its dysfunction by refusing to re-hear one of those cases, an appeal regarding the president's immigration actions, leaving millions of people in legal limbo.

Racial bias in the criminal justice system, the ... political power of minority voters, and the accountability of predatory banks are at the center of this term's most interesting cases.

Looming over all of this is a tumultuous presidential election, the results of which may well determine the ideological direction of the court for generations to come.

How could anyone think this mélange portends a boring term?

Two cases scheduled for oral argument in the first two weeks of the term revolve around racial bias in the criminal justice system, even as Americans struggle to reconcile recent police shootings of unarmed African Americans. These cases will give the Supreme Court not one but two opportunities to keep the specter of racism from haunting the jury box and poisoning decisions that, under the Constitution, must be free from racial bias.

One of those cases, Buck v. Davis, will be argued Wednesday. The circumstances involve an "expert" witness called by Duane Buck's own attorney who testified during the sentencing phase of Buck's criminal trial that Buck was more likely to be dangerous because he was African American. That testimony fed into long-standing and persistent stereotypes of African American men as dangerous and violent, and Buck was sentenced to death rather than life in prison. Buck is asking the Justices for the opportunity to make the argument in the courts below that he was deprived of his constitutional right to the effective assistance of counsel.

The case of Peña-Rodriquez v. Colorado turns on racist comments allegedly made by a juror during deliberations. The juror allegedly said he did not trust Miguel Angel Peña-Rodriguez or his alibi witness because they were Mexican. The jury reached a guilty verdict. The high court's ruling will determine for the first time whether evidence of racial bias against a criminal defendant is so compelling that it justifies piercing the veil of secrecy that usually surrounds jury deliberations.

The court's decisions will have lasting impact on how legislative districts are drawn, who gets elected, and thus who makes the laws that affect us all.

The growing political power of minorities is at issue in two cases involving redistricting of state and federal legislative districts in the electoral battlegrounds of North Carolina and Virginia. In these cases, challengers are asking the Court to hold that use of a fixed racial quota to over-pack minorities into certain districts -- diluting their influence in other districts -- violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

The court's decisions will have lasting impact on how legislative districts are drawn, who gets elected, and thus who makes the laws that affect us all.

Oral arguments in the case of Bank of America v. Miami will bring renewed attention to some of the same predatory lending practices that led to the 2008 financial catastrophe and the Great Recession that followed. The question is whether the city of Miami under the Fair Housing Act can sue banks that allegedly engaged in a decade-long practice of predatory mortgage lending that targeted vulnerable minorities for costly, high-risk loans.

The court will hear cases this term on many other important issues as well, including class action lawsuits and the filling of senior positions in the federal government. Decisions in these cases could have far-ranging repercussions for the progress and promise of our justice system as well as our nation's founding principles. That's nothing to snooze over.