This Week’s Report: “Supreme Court Controversies”

As the Supreme Court opens its new term on Monday, Oct. 1, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. will be starting his eighth year presiding over a high court sharply divided on legal and judicial philosophies. That division was evident in the court’s landmark ruling in June upholding President Obama’s controversial health care law, and it could well play out this fall as the justices take up the hot-potato issue of affirmative action in university admission policies.

As Associate Editor Kenneth Jost writes in this comprehensive overview of the Roberts court, “Roberts joins four other justices appointed by Republican presidents to form a conservative majority on some of the most closely divided issues. Four justices appointed by Democratic presidents… form a liberal bloc that winds up in dissent in most of the court’s 5-4 decisions.”

Even so, Roberts surprised – and disappointed – conservatives by siding with the liberal bloc in affirming the health care law, notes Jost, author of CQ Press’ Supreme Court Yearbook and The Supreme Court from A to Z. Meanwhile, liberal activists decry what they see as the court’s right-leaning slant in a wide range of decisions, including those on gender pay equity and campaign finance.

Jost’s piece provides both a thorough preview of the court’s new term and deeply reported background on the Roberts court’s judicial legacy. The report includes profiles of the court’s nine justices, summaries of its key decisions and 2012-2013 cases, a sidebar on the   affirmative action case and a pro-con debate by outside experts on whether the court should prohibit racial preferences in university admissions.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

This Week’s Report: Assessing the New Health Care Law

When a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in June, the decision hardly spelled the end of controversy over President Obama’s signature health care law. Conservative politicians, including Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, vow to repeal the measure, while the ACA’s supporters say doing so would drive up medical costs and leave millions of Americans uninsured.

As veteran health care reporter and CQ Researcher staff writer Marcia Clemmitt explains in this important contribution to the law’s journalistic coverage, little is known yet how the ACA will affect medical costs and insurance coverage. “With implementation of the law’s major provisions more than a year away, much of the debate is still driven by theories rather than data,” she notes. But Clemmitt explores those theories and the underlying economic and legal principles in depth, offering a comprehensive examination of one of the most important pieces of legislation in a generation or more.

This report is ideal for classes and papers in law, health policy, political science and American government and is important reading for faculty and researchers seeking to understand the new health care law’s far-reaching implications.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor 

This Week’s Report: Solitary Confinement

Tens of thousands of U.S. prison inmates are locked in solitary confinement for months or years at a stretch, a practice that some prison officials defend as necessary but that critics charge is rarely justified.   

“Accounts of bizarre and self-destructive behavior by prisoners have multiplied as long-term solitary confinement has become commonplace in the U.S. prison system over the past two decades,” veteran journalist Peter Katel writes. And “questions about psychological effects are part of a larger debate in criminal-justice and human-rights circles over whether confining anyone for long periods in strict isolation is humane and whether isolation is effective in keeping order” in prisons.    

But supporters of solitary confinement and special “supermax” prisons say prisoner isolation is “essential for public safety and management of potentially explosive prison populations,” Katel continues. “Strict solitary keeps highly dangerous inmates in conditions in which they’re less able to harm prison staff or other inmates or induce other prisoners to commit violent acts.” 

This report is ideal for classes and papers on criminal justice, human rights, public safety,   psychology, mental health and general public policy.

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

This Week’s Report: Re-examining the Constitution

As Americans prepare to mark the U.S. Constitution’s 225th anniversary on Sept. 17, many are questioning whether the nation’s founding document remains right for the times. Some wonder whether the Constitution, with its intricate system of checks and balances and separation of powers, is an adequate guide for dealing with contemporary issues such as gun control, abortion and political gridlock. Others argue that the document’s structural features, such as the Electoral College, are outmoded.

Associate Editor Kenneth Jost provides a compelling and thorough examination of the issues and controversies surrounding the Constitution and offers a layman’s guide to the document’s most important parts. A separate pro/con debate in Jost’s report deals with the question of whether a constitutional convention should be called to amend the document.

“Americans appear more ambivalent or divided about the Constitution than they were 25 years ago,” Jost writes.  As David Bodenhamer, a history professor at Indiana University, told Jost, “We’re very much divided as a nation about what we see as the appropriate role of the government. We’re forced to think once again about what those fundamental assumptions of the relationship of the government to the individual are.”

--Thomas J. Billitteri, Managing Editor

Weekly Roundup 9/4/2012

Prying Open the Ultimate Cold Case
David Carr, The New York Times, Sept. 2, 2012

Synopsis:  A book by filmmaker Errol Morris takes a new look at the controversial case of Jeffrey MacDonald, an Army doctor and Green Beret, who was convicted of killing his pregnant wife and two young daughters in 1970.

Takeaway:  Carr writes that Morris’s book may not have proved MacDonald’s innocence, “but it makes a forceful argument that his conviction was riddled with shortcomings.”

For background see the CQ Researcher report “Wrongful Convictions,” 4/17/2009, updated June 14, 2012.

--Thomas J. Colin, Contributing Editor