WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court begins a new term today with the most important civil rights agenda in years on the horizon and amid intensified scrutiny of the relationship between Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his fellow conservatives.
If last term's blockbuster cases involving immigration and President Barack Obama's Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act centered on the reach of the federal government's powers, this term offers a chance to cast the 21st century meaning of the Constitution's guarantee of equal rights.
A combination of cases asks the court to decide whether special protections and accommodations for minorities have reached their limit and whether society's growing acceptance of same-sex unions warrants constitutional protection.
The justices will consider the continued viability of affirmative action in college admissions when it hears a challenge next week to the University of Texas's race-conscious selection process.
And there are several challenges awaiting the court's action on the most controversial part of the Voting Rights Act - the Civil Rights-era requirement that some states with a history of racial discrimination receive federal approval before enacting voting or election-law changes.
The court seems all but certain to confront the issue of same-sex marriage by considering suits against the 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act. The law's provision denying federal recognition of same-sex marriages performed in states where they are legal has been deemed unconstitutional both by the Obama administration and lower courts that have considered it.
In addition, the court will be asked to review a decision that overturned California's Proposition 8, in which voters amended the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.
A decision on whether to accept the gay rights cases is likely to come in November.
The cases could keep the court in the same bright public spotlight that shone on its deliberations last term.
This term opens with questions about the unity of the five Republican-nominated justices who since 2006 have had a remarkable impact on the court's jurisprudence: striking down campaign finance regulations, approving federal restrictions on abortion and expressing doubts about government programs that make distinctions based on race.
"I think there's no question this Supreme Court is the most conservative in our lifetime," said Georgetown law professor Michael Seidman. "But there is a question about what kind of conservatives they are."
In the most important cases of the upcoming term, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is likely to resume his role as the pivotal justice.
But the greatest intrigue will surround Roberts, who, in the most important case of his tenure, sided with the court's four liberals last June to affirm the constitutionality of Obama's signature health-care act.
Kennedy and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. pointedly signed a 65-page dissent that described the decision as "a vast judicial overreaching."
Roberts billed it as just the opposite, an exercise of judicial modesty and deference to the political branches that requires "every reasonable construction must be resorted to, in order to save a statute from unconstitutionality."
Amid reports that Roberts had changed his mind and his conservative colleagues were furious - reports that seemed to have come only from the justices or those close to them - the reaction from the right was brutal.
"Privately, nobody thinks of Roberts the same way," said Curt Levey, who heads the conservative legal group Committee for Justice.