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Cases To Watch As Supreme Court Resumes Session

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tomorrow is the first Monday in October, which means the U.S. Supreme Court returns to work on its new calendar of cases. This term features major challenges to affirmative action, public employee unions, abortion rights and birth control services under Obamacare. There's even a challenge to the way states count their people for political purposes. Joining us to talk about the session ahead is and NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks so much for coming in, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Abortion is before the court again. This is a challenge to state requirements in Texas that make it harder for women to get access to abortions. Do you think the court will hear it this session?

TOTENBERG: In all likelihood, the court will hear it because the law in Texas, as upheld by the lower courts, makes it much more difficult to get an abortion. It's a very big deal, and it offers the court an opportunity to dramatically cut back on Roe v. Wade. Just how much is not clear.

MARTIN: Any predictions?

TOTENBERG: It's really foolish, I've learned over the years, to try to forecast what the court's going to do.

MARTIN: You can look really stupid (laughter),

TOTENBERG: I think the likelihood is they will not outright reverse Roe v. Wade but will cut back on it. Just how is not clear to me. But Justice Kennedy, who is likely to be the fifth and deciding vote in this case, I see his position on abortion as somewhat akin to his position, oddly enough, on the death penalty.

He's helped to make it much more difficult to impose the death penalty, but he has consistently said the states have the right to have the death penalty. And on abortion, he has fairly consistently said that states have the right to narrow the ability of women to have abortions, to make it much more difficult for them to have abortions but that they can't outright outlaw them.

MARTIN: We also have election-year time bombs affecting affirmative action and religious liberty versus access to birth control. What can you tell us about those cases?

TOTENBERG: Well, affirmative action and higher education is back for the second time in a couple of years. Kennedy, again, will be the deciding vote. Again, he'll probably cut back on the ability of colleges and universities to have affirmative action programs. How far, not certain.

Birth control in Obamacare is on its way back, in all likelihood, because of some religious organizations - that is not churches themselves or synagogues themselves but affiliated organizations like hospitals and universities - object to filing a paper with the federal government saying we object to providing birth control in our insurance coverage because that makes us complicit in a triggering mechanism that allows some employees to get that birth control.

And that case is likely to come before the court because there's now a split in the lower courts. Seven courts have said sending a single-page letter to the government isn't a burden, and one court said it is.

MARTIN: Lots to watch. Nina Totenberg will help us make sense of it as it unfolds.

TOTENBERG: Or not (laughter).

MARTIN: NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks for coming in, Nina.

TOTENBERG: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.