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For Supreme Court's new term: rise of a new centrist

Key abortion and racial cases could signal whether Justice Kennedy shifts court to the right or maintains precedents.

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Abortion regulations and race-based public school enrollment plans are among major national issues at the US Supreme Court this year in a term that offers the first real insight into the constitutional vision of the high court under Chief Justice John Roberts.

Constitutional scholars and other analysts are watching closely to see if respect for legal precedent – the principle of stare decisis – emerges as a defining approach, or whether the Roberts court will seek to build on the conservative agenda of the Rehnquist court, with sweeping rulings that erode or erase liberal precedents.

A major factor in the direction of the court, whose 2006-2007 term begins Monday, is Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is emerging as a primary centrist power on the court following the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Analysts say he may provide the swing vote in several key cases.

"The absence of Justice O'Connor will be one of the most fundamental changes the court has seen," former acting solicitor general and Duke Law School Professor Walter Dellinger told reporters in a recent preterm briefing.

"It is difficult to overstate the significance of that shift," said former solicitor general and Pepperdine Law School Dean Kenneth Starr, in the same briefing. "All eyes will be on Kennedy."

Justice Kennedy's new judicial clout will be on full display in both the race and abortion cases. Similar cases were decided by 5-4 majorities in recent years with Justice O'Connor joining the court's four liberal justices. In contrast, Kennedy dissented in both cases.

Last term was a year of historic transition for the court with the passing of Chief Justice William Rehnquist and the retirement of O'Connor. It marked the arrival of Mr. Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as an associate justice.

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