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US Supreme Court readies historic rulings

Plaintiff Edie Windsor (R), an 83-year-old lesbian widow, leaves the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC
Plaintiff Edie Windsor (R), an 83-year-old lesbian widow, gestures at same-sex marriage supporters as she leaves the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC, after the US v. Windsor case that challenged the constitutionality of the Defense of Ma

The US Supreme Court is preparing to hand down one of the most significant sequences of judgments in US history, with upcoming rulings expected to have far-reaching consequences for millions of Americans.

The nine-justice panel must issue opinions on outstanding cases it has heard in fall and winter sessions by the end of June.

They are set to rule on cases involving hot button issues such as gay marriage, equal opportunities in education and voter rights for minorities.

The first of the keenly awaited opinions could be released as early as Monday, with analysts tipping the possibility of a resolution to a case revolving around the affirmative action admissions policy of the University of Texas at Austin.

An undergraduate student, Abigail Fisher has challenged the college's decision to deny her admission because of racial quotas.

Fisher argued that she had effectively been discriminated against because she was white, in violation of equal protection rules enshrined in the US Constitution.

A separate case also seeks to address another crucial pillar of the civil rights struggle, looking into whether federal laws protecting minority voting rights were still warranted.

Same-sex marriage supporters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC
Same-sex marriage supporters demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court on March 27, 2013 in Washington, DC.

In the most high-profile case, justices will rule on the legality of same-sex marriage following landmark oral hearings in March.

Elizabeth Wydra, a lawyer at the Constitutional Accountability Center, said the upcoming rulings might even outweigh last year's arguments on health care.

"Everyone thought that last term was the term of the century because of the health care arguments," Wydra told AFP.

"But this term might be even more historic because the Court is considering the constitutionality of the Voting Rights Act, one of America's most iconic civil rights laws, the constitutionality of providing for equal opportunity in higher education in the affirmative action case, and a fundamental question of equality in the same-sex marriage cases.

"It's a very important term for millions of Americans who want to enjoy their constitutional right to equality."

Wydra said attempting to predict which way the court would lean in its opinions was fraught with difficulty, believing that the views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who has often held the swing vote on close decisions in the past, may again be key.

The Supreme Court justices are supposed to be independent, but five of them were selected by Republican presidents and are mostly conservative, while four picked by Democrats and tend to be liberal. Kennedy, appointed by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1988, is often the swing vote.

Six of the nine US Supreme Court Justices await the president's State of the Union in Washington, DC, February 12, 2013
US Supreme Court Justices, from left, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan await the start of President Barack Obama's State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on February

"This term, in particular, it's very risky to bet on what the Supreme Court will do," Wydra said. "This will be again a term where Justice Kennedy's vote in many cases could be the deciding factor."

"It's very likely that Justice Kennedy will write the opinion and could very well be the decisive vote in the affirmative action case."

Meanwhile Elise Boddie, the litigation director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Legal Defense Fund, said the opinions on the two civil rights cases before the justices -- on affirmative action programs in college and minority voting rights -- would have a massive sociological impact.

"The cases are enormously important because ultimately the issues that are at stake are protecting opportunities in higher education for African-Americans and protecting the opportunity to participate in our democracy, tremendously important issues that will affect the landscape of opportunity and inclusion in the country," Boddie said.

"We'll be watching every Justice in these cases to see how they vote. We are optimistic about these cases, because we think that at the end of the day the justices will recognize the importance of opportunities in high education and that no door should be closed to under-represented groups."

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