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Supreme Court to tackle race, sex issues

Disputes over affirmative action and sexual harassment - two cases that could affect every American workplace - await the Supreme Court as justices meet to start their new term Monday.

The court also will wrestle with legal tangles involving televised political debates, lie-detector tests and police chases that lead to fatal accidents.Based on cases the court already has agreed to hear, the new term does not measure up to the blockbuster 1996-97 term. It produced a number of landmark rulings, including striking down a congressional bid to keep smut off the Internet and ruling that terminally ill people do not have a constitutional right to doctor-assisted suicide.

"But who knows how many sleepers are lying in wait?" said Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University.

"It is inevitable because we rely so much on solving our problems in courts of law that the Supreme Court will have a lot to say on most of the important issues we face," she said. "The court is passive and cannot reach out for them, but every great controversy will get there."

After getting a head start last week by agreeing to hear arguments in 10 new cases, the justices have 58 controversies on their docket. That's four more than they had at the start of the last term.

Sorting through thousands of appeals, the court is likely over the next four months to add about two dozen more cases to review and decide by June.

Looming largest among those vying for court attention is a challenge to California's Proposition 209, which bans considering race or sex in filling state jobs or admitting students to college.

"The question is whether affirmative action will survive this term," said Kathy Rodgers of the Legal Defense and Educational Fund of the National Organization for Women.

Under Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist's leadership, the court has become increasingly hostile to race-based policies - even those with benign intent.

The scope of its rulings on the use of race in affirmative action or in drawing election districts has been determined largely by the views of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who often supplies the critical fifth vote on the nine-member court.

Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the court's most consistent conservatives, are expected to press for broad limits - if not an outright ban - on most forms of affirmative action.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and, to a lesser extent, O'Connor, also have voiced great skepticism about affirmative action.

Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer are viewed as more sympathetic.

The same federal law is at issue in the sexual-harassment case, in which a Louisiana oil rig worker says he was sexually pursued by his male supervisor.

In past rulings, the justices have said that illegal harassment can stem from a "hostile environment" in the workplace. Former roustabout Joseph Oncale said he quit his job after he was sexually assaulted, touched and threatened with rape by three men, including his supervisor.

Washington lawyer Donald Ayer, who has studied Oncale's case, said it will yield a "most predictable outcome."

"Can conduct between men amount to sexual discrimination? The answer clearly will be yes," Ayer said. If so, employers will inherit a new realm of potential liability over the conduct of their supervisors and other employees.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Some of the major cases before court

Some issues the Supreme Court will decide in 1997-98 term:

- Affirmative action. Did a New Jersey school board violate a federal anti-bias law when it laid off a white teacher and retained a black one solely to promote racial diversity?

- Sexual harassment. Does the federal law that bans on-the-job sexual harassment apply when the alleged harasser is the same gender as the alleged victim?

- Political debates. Did a state-owned broadcast network in Arkansas violate a candidate's free-speech rights when it excluded him from a televised debate?

- Polygraphs. Can the military's ban on using lie-detector tests violate some criminal defendants' rights?

- Sunken treasure. How should courts handle disputes between states and treasure hunters seeking to explore sunken ships?

- Police chases. How vulnerable to being sued should police officers and local governments be when high-speed chases cause accidental deaths?