Adam Liptak

WASHINGTON: The Supreme Court returns to the bench Monday to confront not only a docket studded with momentous issues but also a new dynamic among the justices.

The coming term will probably include major decisions on affirmative action in higher education admissions, same-sex marriage and a challenge to the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Those rulings could easily rival the last term’s as the most consequential in recent memory.

The theme this term is the nature of equality, and it will play out over issues that have bedeviled the nation for decades.

“Last term will be remembered for one case,” said Kannon K. Shanmugam, a lawyer with Williams & Connolly. “This term will be remembered for several.”

The court’s attention will shift from federalism and the economy to questions involving race and sexual orientation.

The new issues before the court are concrete and consequential: Who gets to go to college? To get married? To vote?

On Oct. 10, the court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, No. 11-345, a major challenge to affirmative action in higher education. The case was brought by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who says she was denied admission to the University of Texas based on her race. The university selects part of its class by taking race into account, as one factor among many, in an effort to ensure educational diversity.

The court will probably also take on same-sex marriage.

“I think it’s most likely that we will have that issue before the court toward the end of the current term,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said at the University of Colorado on Sept. 19.

The justices are also quite likely to take another look at the constitutionality of a signature legacy of the civil rights era, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2009, the court signaled that it had reservations about the part of the law that requires federal review of changes in election procedures in parts of the country with a history of discrimination.

On Monday, the new term starts with Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co., No. 10-1491. The case was brought by 12 Nigerian plaintiffs who said the defendants, foreign oil companies, had been complicit in human rights violations committed against them by the Abacha dictatorship in Nigeria. The question in the case is whether U.S. courts have jurisdiction over such suits; business groups are hoping the answer is no.