Theodore Olsen, Sonia Sotomayor,  Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Elena Kagan.

Gay rights advocate Vin Testa in front of the Supreme Court. The prospect of a monumental ruling on same-sex marriage dominates expectations of the coming session.

By Robert Barnes
October 4, 2014 at 7:16 PM

The 10th edition of the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. begins work Monday with the prospect of a monumental ruling for gay rights that could serve as a surprising legacy of an otherwise increasingly conservative court.

Whether the justices will decide that the Constitution protects the right of same-sex couples to marry dominates expectations of the coming term; such a ruling would impart landmark status on a docket that so far lacks a blockbuster case.

And some say it would be a defining moment for a closely divided court that bears the chief justice’s name but is most heavily influenced by the justice in the middle: Anthony M. Kennedy, who has written the court’s most important decisions affording protection to gay Americans.

“If the court establishes a right to same-sex marriage . . . [it] will go down in history as one that was on the frontiers of establishing rights for gays and lesbians,” said David A. Strauss, a constitutional-law scholar at the University of Chicago.

“The rough idea would be that the Roberts court would be to the rights of gays and lesbians what the Warren court was on race issues.”

That would seem an unlikely outcome for a court that has moved to the right since Roberts joined it as chief justice nine years ago.

Along with his fellow George W. Bush nominee, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., Roberts has been part of a five-justice majority, including Kennedy, that has staked out conservative positions on abortion, affirmative action, campaign finance restrictions and government accommodation of religion. It is widely seen as solicitous of corporate interests.

Along with fresh questions, such as how to assess violent but perhaps hyperbolic threats made on Facebook, some of those divisive issues may return.

The term ahead

Challenges to a number of state laws restricting access to abortion may reach the high court in time for consideration this term.

Civil rights activists fear the court accepted a housing case from Texas last week to do away with a practice that allows challenges of policies they say have a “disparate impact” on minorities even if they were passed without discriminatory intent.

There is a chance that the court will accept one of the new challenges to the Affordable Care Act, this time about federal subsidies for those who bought insurance on an exchange that was not set up by a state. Both sides agree the subsidies are crucial to making Obamacare work.

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