By James Vicini
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court will again consider gun rights and decide an important case that could loosen restrictions on corporation spending in political campaigns in its new term beginning on Monday.
The nine-member panel now includes Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Appointed by President Barack Obama, she is the first justice named by a Democratic president in 15 years and the first Hispanic on the high court.
Sotomayor succeeded Justice David Souter, who retired in June. She generally is expected to vote with the three other liberals as Souter did.
"The 2009 term seems likely to produce important decisions on free speech, government accountability and criminal justice," Steven Shapiro of the American Civil Liberties Union said. "And it certainly will tell us more than we now know about the role that Justice Sotomayor will play on a Supreme Court that remains closely divided along ideological lines."
The term could reveal whether the five-member conservative majority led by Chief Justice John Roberts overturns past precedents on issues like corporate spending limits for congressional and presidential races.
"This term is going to be an enormous test for Chief Justice Roberts and the conservatives on the court," said Doug Kendall, founder and president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a liberal think tank and law firm.
The court heard arguments in the campaign finance case in a special session last month. The conservatives appeared ready to rule that corporate spending limits for federal campaigns violated the free-speech rights of businesses.
The conservatives include two appointees of Republican President George W. Bush -- Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, who in 2006 replaced the more moderate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. The others are Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy.
Besides Sotomayor, the liberals are Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both appointees of Democratic President Bill Clinton, and Justice John Paul Stevens, at 89 the court's oldest and longest-serving member.
SPECULATION STEVENS MIGHT RETIRE
There has been speculation Stevens might retire at the end of the term in June. That would give Obama another appointment but probably would not change the court's balance of power.
On Wednesday, the court said it would step back into the legal battle over gun rights and decide whether state and local laws violated an individual's constitutional right to bear arms. The ruling could open the door for new challenges to gun control laws across the country.
Robin Conrad of the National Chamber Litigation Center, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's public policy law firm, said the business cases this term covered a broad range of issues.
Potential major business rulings could involve patent, antitrust and securities law, white-collar crime and a challenge to the 2002 law that created a national board to oversee U.S. public company auditors.
Another important business case concerns whether a shareholder who claims that a mutual fund's investment adviser charged an excessive fee must also show the adviser misled the fund's directors who approved the fee.
"This implicates the current debate over whether the market system can be relied upon to set a fair and sensible compensation for executives," Gene Schaerr of the law firm Winston & Strawn said at a Washington Legal Foundation briefing to preview the term.
(Editing by Alan Elsner)