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Too-close-to-call cases at Supreme Court

In this term, beginning Monday, several key cases could hinge on one justice.

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– It is called the Supreme Court, but this year in key cases the institution might just as well be called the supreme realm of Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Such is the power of the centrist swing voter among eight other justices who often split 4 to 4 on the most contentious disputes in the nation. After nearly two decades on the high court, Justice Kennedy has never been more important and powerful, and – in the view of some – dangerous.

Liberals fear him. Conservatives distrust him. But all eyes will be on Kennedy as the court opens its 2007-08 term Monday with a string of major cases on the horizon that appear headed for 4-to-4 deadlocks.

Among them is a dispute over gun rights in Washington, D.C., a battle over the legal rights of terror suspects at the Guantánamo detention center, and a challenge to the president's power to order state judges to uphold international court rulings.

In addition, the high court will examine whether execution by lethal injection in Kentucky is a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and whether the Constitution forbids Indiana from requiring voters to produce photo identification prior to casting a ballot.

The same internal dynamics among the justices that produced a string of conservative victories on abortion, affirmative action, and campaign finance last term will again be on full display. But this term, Kennedy's positions on pending cases are less clear.

Some analysts say the highest-profile cases this year are likely to bring a broader mix of both liberal and conservative victories. But several of the cases appear too close to call, court watchers say.

One of the most anticipated cases involves a landmark legal dispute over the meaning of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. The justices are being asked to decide whether this is an individual right that belongs to the people or a collective right bestowed by the states through organized militias.

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