The U.S. Supreme Court started out its 2009-2010 term last month agreeing to hear 55 cases. Court watchers are going to be closely watching newly confirmed Justice Sonia Sotomayor to see where she falls on controversial cases.

One critical case, Salazar v. Buono, touches on the question of religious freedom and the relationship between church and state in the United States. The judges are asked to decide the constitutionality of a war memorial cross in a national park in the Mojave Desert (see story, Page 4).

Here are three others identified by Time magazine as cases to watch:

Maryland v. Shatzer

At issue: The rights of police suspects.

If a suspect requests a lawyer when police inform him of that legal right (provided originally by the Supreme Court’s landmark Miranda v. Arizona case), how long does the request remain in effect?

In this case, three years after refusing to answer police questions — because he invoked his right to have an attorney present — about the sexual abuse of his 3-year-old son, Michael Shatzer admitted to a different detective that he was guilty.
Now Shatzer argues that his confession is inadmissible because the detective — who did not know about Shatzer’s original request for an attorney — questioned him without his lawyer present.

In a previous case, Edwards v. Arizona in 1981, the Supreme Court held that Miranda requests are effective for at least one day.

Now they have to decide whether they want to extend it even further.

Graham v. Florida /
Sullivan v. Florida

At issue: Is life imprisonment for minors on nonhomicide charges “cruel and unusual punishment”?

The Supreme Court’s last major juvenile justice case, Roper v. Simmons, in 2005, held it unconstitutional to execute anyone for a crime committed as a juvenile because juveniles lack the “psychological maturity” to fully comprehend the gravity of wrongdoing that would justify death.

Here, the justices are asked to take the protection of the Eighth Amendment against “cruel and unusual punishment” one step further: not just prohibit executions but also sentences of life in prison.

One of the pair of cases the justices are considering involves the burglary and rape of a 72-year-old woman — by a 13-year-old who had 17 prior criminal offenses on his record. The other case involves a 16-year-old sentenced to life without parole for the armed burglary of a restaurant.

This summer, Florida State University’s Public Interest Law Center estimated that there are 111 inmates in seven states serving life-without-parole sentences for non-homicide crimes committed as juveniles. Most of them — 77 — are in Florida prisons.

National Rifle Association v. Chicago / McDonald v. Chicago

At issue: Scope of Second Amendment’s right to bear arms.

Two cases are challenging Chicago’s nearly three-decade prohibition of handguns within city limits.

Last year, the Supreme Court, in District of Columbia v. Heller, ruled that the Second Amendment should be understood to guarantee an individual right to bear arms — a more expansive judicial view of the amendment’s wording.

That opened the door to a host of challenges to gun laws across the country. These are among the first.