THE ARGUMENTS: California is the only state that accepted, then revoked, same-sex marriage as a legal right. The measure's supporters asked the justices to preserve the will of the voters in this politically charged social issue. Opponents of Prop 8 seek a court-ordered expansion of the "traditional" views of marriage.
THE OUTCOME: With so many options, the simplest one would be to "DIG" it -- dismiss the case as "improvidently granted," meaning the larger constitutional issues would not be settled, at least now. That could throw the case back to the lower courts to sort out the jurisdictional issues and perhaps allow another voter referendum next year on gay marriage. A sweeping ruling on whether same-sex marriage is a fundamental constitutional right seems unlikely.
THE IMPACT: Currently, same-sex marriage is allowed in 10 states and the District of Columbia. Delaware and Minnesota's recently passed laws take effect this summer. It is estimated about 120,000 legally married same-sex couples live in the United States.
Another seven or so states recognize civil unions or broad domestic partnerships, providing state-level spousal rights to same-sex couples. Obama, who previously opposed same-sex marriage, said he now supports it.
PATENTS - Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics
AT ISSUE: Whether human genes are patentable. Can "products of nature" be treated the same as "human-made" inventions and held as the exclusive intellectual property of individuals and companies?
THE CASE: A Utah-based company was sued over its claim of patents on two human genes. Myriad Genetics isolated and identified related types of biological material, BRCA-1 and BRCA-2, whose mutations are linked to increased hereditary risk for breast and ovarian cancer. With its development of synthesized gene clones, Myriad is the only company that can perform tests for potential abnormalities.
THE ARGUMENTS: On one side, many scientists and companies argue that patents encourage medical innovation and investment that save lives. On the other, patient rights groups and civil libertarians counter that the patent holders are "holding hostage" the diagnostic care and access to information available to high-risk patients.
The patent system was created more than two centuries ago with a dual purpose: offering temporary financial incentives for those at the ground floor of innovative products and ensuring that one company does not hold a lifetime monopoly that might stifle competition and consumer affordability.
THE OUTCOME: The court signaled during oral arguments it might strike a middle ground by blocking companies from patenting "natural" genes themselves but allowing them to patent the discovery of something valuable about the gene, such as a test to detect breast cancer.
The high court has long allowed patent protection for the creation of a new process or use for natural products. Whether "isolating" or "extracting" genes themselves qualifies for such protection is now the issue.
THE IMPACT: The issue gained greater public attention when actress Angelina Jolie announced this month she had undergone a double mastectomy after taking the BRCA tests from Myriad. In what could be a guide to the justices in Myriad, the high court last term rejected a patent claim on a doctor's medical diagnosis of a patient's reaction to a drug.