US Supreme Court’s new term will see arguments that touch on political impasse

Justices will be asked to decide on constitutional matters in view of row between Obama and Congress

The US supreme court started a new legal term yesterday during which it will decide on matters ranging from protests at abortion clinics to restrictions on political donations.

As political gridlock paralyses Congress, the court's authority to strike down any state or federal laws that it deems unconstitutional has cast the nine judges as important arbiters on the controversial social issues facing the country.

Unlike the previous term, when the court dealt with landmark cases about gay marriage and voting rights, there are no similar ground-breaking legislative changes to consider during this legal term. But there are political cases that will develop arguments on contentious subjects that touch on the political impasse in the US Capitol.

Recess appointments
The court will be asked to decide on the row between US president Barack Obama and Congress on how the constitution should be interpreted on presidential appointments while the Senate is in recess, with Republicans claiming that Mr Obama's recess appointments are unconstitutional.

A provision of the Affordable Care Act, Mr Obama’s healthcare law, which Republicans have shut down the US government in a bid to topple, may come before the court as it weighs the law’s requirement that health insurance sponsored by employers include coverage of contraceptives.

The court has railed against being thrust into such a critical role in public debate at a time when politicians cannot agree.

"Any society that relies on nine unelected judges to resolve the most serious issues of the day is not a functioning democracy," said judge Anthony Kennedy, the court's swing voter who most often sides with conservatives but is the crucial deciding vote when the four liberal judges emerge victorious.

“I just don’t think that a democracy is responsible if it doesn’t have a political, rational, respective discourse so it can solve these problems before they come to the court,” he said in a speech last week.

With the start of a new court session, the focus has again turned to how Mr Obama might sway the bias towards liberalism in a court that has the power to shape the US for a generation.

Although judges can serve for life, they can also retire and four judges – Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer – are over 75.

Ms Ginsburg, the oldest judge at 80 years of age and the court’s leading liberal, has shown no willingness to retire, saying in interviews over the summer that she would carry on working as long as she could.

On the eve of the new session, Mr Scalia (77), the longest-serving judge and one of the most conservative, gave a lengthy interview to New York magazine in which he said that women may be discriminated against where there are reasonable grounds such as "going into combat" but minorities may not.

In an at-times bizarre interview, the outspoken judge shared his thoughts on online social networking – "it's strange" – his distaste for women's use of the F-word, his love of TV comedy series Seinfeld, his hatred of the Washington Post for its "slanted" coverage of conservative issues and his belief in the devil.