By James Vicini
WASHINGTON, Sept 28 (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court's new term has cases on abortion, the environment and racial diversity in schools, some of the country's most contentious social issues for a court primed to shift sharply to the right by President George W. Bush's conservative appointees.
The nation's highest court, with Bush's two appointees, could decide to limit or overturn recent precedents upholding abortion rights for women and programs to foster a racially diverse student body, legal experts said.
"The term is going to be a bellwether on the shift in the court's ideology. The court is revisiting a series of profound issues," said Tom Goldstein, a Washington lawyer who closely follows the court.
"With Justice (Sandra Day) O'Connor's departure from the ideological center seat, there's the prospect for a significant shift to the right," he said of the term that begins on Monday.
It will be the second full term for Chief Justice John Roberts, who succeeded the late William Rehnquist, and the first full term for Justice Samuel Alito, who replaced the more moderate O'Connor. Bush appointed both Roberts and Alito.
In the cases on hot-button issues, the Bush administration has urged the high court to uphold a federal law that bans some abortion procedures and to strike down race-based student assignment plans for public elementary and secondary schools.
In the environmental case, the Bush administration defended before the court its decision not to regulate car and truck emissions that many scientists say contribute to global warming.
POTENTIAL 'BLOCKBUSTER TERM'
"This has the potential for being a blockbuster term," Duke University law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said. "Socially significant cases, legally significant cases, cases that affect the rights of large numbers of people -- all of that is already present."
The experts agreed on the emerging importance of moderate conservative Justice Anthony Kennedy as the key swing vote. In the high-profile cases, he could cast the decisive vote on the nine-member court with four liberals and four conservatives.
With Roberts and Alito, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas make up the conservative bloc. The liberals consist of Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
In considering the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003 and the use of student assignment plans to achieve racial diversity, the court could revisit issues it addressed only a few years ago, the experts said.
The court by a 5-4 vote in 2000 struck down a similar Nebraska abortion law. The experts said they will be watching closely whether the court follows that precedent and strikes down the federal law involving a late-term abortion procedure.
In 2003, the court by a 5-4 vote upheld the use of race as a factor in admissions at a public university. The experts said they will be watching if that precedent is extended to the use of race as a factor for elementary and secondary school assignments.
O'Connor voted in the majority in both cases.
"One way or another, the outcome of these cases will tell us a great deal about the future direction of the Roberts court," Steven Shapiro, the American Civil Liberties Union's legal director, said.
The experts said more cases involving Bush's war on terrorism, including the domestic warrantless surveillance program, would eventually reach the Supreme Court, although it might not be in the upcoming term.
The Supreme Court ended its last term with a landmark ruling on June 29 that struck down as illegal the military tribunal system that Bush initially established to try Guantanamo prisoners.