WASHINGTON (Oct. 7)
The Supreme Court began its term this week with a docket that for a second straight year does not include church-state issues, the traditional focus for most Jewish legal observers.
In what otherwise is shaping up to be a quiet term for the Jewish community, the court will decide by July whether states may prohibit doctors from helping terminally ill patients take their own lives.
Earlier this year, federal appeals courts in New York and Washington struck down laws in the two states prohibiting doctors from aiding patients who want to commit suicide.
While the issue has generated considerable debate among Jewish doctors and medical ethicists, most Jewish groups have yet to take a position.
Agudath Israel has come out against assisted–suicide, arguing that Jewish law prohibits a doctor from hastening a patient’s death.
Another case Jewish legal observers will be watching closely deals with an amendment to the Arizona state constitution declaring English the state’s official language.
The amendment, approved in a referendum and later ruled unconstitutional by a federal appeals court, requires all government business to be done in English and prohibits government workers from speaking in any language but English.
The case was on the court’s docket last year. At the time, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress both signed a brief opposing the statute.
The issue has resonance for Jews who remember a time when the government provided help to Jewish immigrants who spoke only Yiddish.
“People have forgotten that in fact there was a fair amount of government bilingualism in the early part of the century,” said Marc Stern, co-director of the legal department of AJCongress, adding that government agencies often provided Yiddish translators.
In another case with First Amendment implications held over from last term, the court will decide whether there are limits to the free speech guarantees of protesters at abortion clinics.
The Supreme Court will review a lower court order that forces protesters outside of abortion clinics in western New York to back off if clients ask to be left alone. The justices will decide whether the order is a justifiable protection of patients’ rights or an unlawful limit on protesters’ free speech.
The AJCongress and the American Jewish Committee signed on to a brief last year in support of the court order and patients’ rights.
But Stern said, “There’s a delicate balance here for the court as well as for the Jewish community: How do we not silence dissent at the same time as we protect vital rights?”
The court will also hear a case on the constitutionality of a congressional redistricting plan that reduced Georgia’s black-dominated districts from three to one.
Last year, the Supreme Court issued two 5-4 rulings striking down race-based congressional districts as unconstitutional. The high court ruled, as it did in weighing similar cases in 1993, that race played too great a role in drawing the boundaries of so-called “majority-minority” districts in North Carolina and Texas.
Most Jewish groups supported the principle behind the decisions, but stopped short of publicly applauding the court’s actions out of fear of inflaming tensions between blacks and Jews.
The justices “are very closely divided and they haven’t set anything like a standard, so they’re going to try once more,” Stern said.