As the U.S. Supreme Court begins its new term today, memories of its last historic term (same sex marriage legalized, the existence of Obamacare reaffirmed) are still vivid. The Court’s docket does not seem as laden with heavy, monumental issues as last year’s.  But there is no shortage of compelling issues.  Here are a few cases to look out for:

In Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a white woman named Abigail Fisher continues her lengthy challenge to UT’s use of a race-conscious admissions program that, in her view, unconstitutionally denied her entry.   In 2003, the Supreme Court barred universities from employing explicit racial “quotas” to enhance the diversity of its student body but acknowledged the importance of diversity in higher education.  Now, instead of quotas, many institutions have policies that treat racial diversity as a positive factor in a holistic admissions process.  These policies are facing attack in Fisher.  Some scholars view the Supreme Court’s willingness to grant review in this case as a signal that the Court’s conservative wing may wish to refashion, or possibly jettison, affirmative action in admissions altogether.  Fisher has not yet been scheduled for oral argument, which means that the Court will hear the case no earlier than December.

The Court, however, has scheduled four death penalty cases for oral argument in October and November.  The specific issues in those cases run the gamut from exploring how juries should be instructed about mitigating circumstances in the sentencing phase of a capital trial to examining the duty of state courts to monitor prosecutors who may seek to strike prospective jurors in a discriminatory fashion during jury selection to clarifying the delicate balance between judge and jury in the decision-making process.  At bottom, the choice to review such an array of capital cases points to the Court’s lingering unease with the death penalty in theory and the manner in which it is applied in practice. Other issues at stake this term include those related to voting rights and the Supreme Court’s interpretation of “one person, one vote” as well as the rights of public unions. 

So, take a deep breath.  It promises to be an exciting year for the highest court, if not perhaps as dramatic as the one that just concluded