October 1, 2018 / 2:26 PM / in 2 months

U.S. Supreme Court opens new term, overshadowed by Kavanaugh brawl

WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - The short-handed U.S. Supreme Court launched its new term on Monday, with the legal arguments in its stately courtroom overshadowed by the harsh fight over President Donald Trump's nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for a lifetime job as a justice.

There were eight justices, rather than the usual nine, following the retirement of long-serving conservative justice Anthony Kennedy, effective in July. Trump selected Kavanaugh to replace Kennedy, but the Senate confirmation process has been detoured as the FBI conducts an investigation of sexual misconduct allegations against the nominee.

Chief Justice John Roberts began the proceedings with business as usual, and congratulated Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for her "distinguished service" during a quarter century on the court.

The court started its nine-month term, according to tradition, on the first Monday of October, by hearing arguments in two cases.

First up was a property rights dispute brought by timber company Weyerhaeuser Co seeking to limit the federal government's power to designate private land as protected habitat for endangered species. The dispute was focused on the dusky gopher frog, an amphibian protected under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Weyerhaeuser harvests timber on the Louisiana land in question and is backed in the case by business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Weyerhaeuser challenged a lower court ruling upholding a 2012 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decision to include private land where the frog does not currently live as critical habitat, potentially putting restrictions on future development opportunities.

The case pitted property rights against federal conservation measures. The frog, found only in four locations in southern Mississippi, also previously inhabited Louisiana and Alabama.

The second case, to be argued after the frog dispute, involved the scope of a federal law that outlaws discrimination on the basis of age.

Before beginning to hear their first arguments of the term, the justices issued a list of cases it was accepting and rejecting. Among them, they rejected Bill Cosby's bid to avoid a defamation lawsuit brought by a well-known former model, Janice Dickinson, who said the comedian sought to destroy her reputation after she publicly accused him of rape.

Kennedy's retirement left the court ideologically deadlocked with four conservatives and four liberals, awaiting the outcome of the Kavanaugh battle. Trump nominated the conservative federal appeals court judge in July. The FBI investigation, ordered by Trump on Friday under pressure from moderates in his own party, is due to last no more than a week.

For the current term, the court has some important cases, though none yet of the magnitude of the biggest from the previous term.

One case involves whether a state and the federal government can each prosecute a person for the same crime. Other cases include whether the U.S. attorney general has too much power in determining to whom the federal sex offender registry applies, and whether a state can execute a convicted murderer who, after a series of strokes, forgot the crime.

But major cases could be added to the calendar including disputes the court did not resolve last term over the constitutionality of an electoral map-drawing practice called partisan gerrymandering and whether people who run businesses can refuse service to gay couples because of religious objections to same-sex marriage.

Important cases percolating in lower courts include disputes over various abortion restrictions in Republican-led states, whether a federal law against sex discrimination also prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation, and Trump's plan to restrict transgender troops in the military.

Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham

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