A historic week at the U.S. Supreme Court may transform the rights of racial minorities and gays, potentially cutting longstanding voting protections for blacks and Hispanics while allowing a new wave of same-sex marriages.

The justices take the bench today to issue the first of 11 decisions before their nine-month term ends. The court is considering limiting university affirmative action, striking down a core part of the landmark Voting Rights Act, invalidating a federal law that defines marriage as an opposite-sex union, and overturning California’s ban on gay weddings.

The result may be a turning point in a debate over equality that has raged since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. While the cases offer paths for the justices to avoid the central constitutional questions, the disputes also give them an opportunity to rewrite the nation’s civil rights laws.

“In the court’s modern history, I don’t think there has ever been one week with so much at stake,” said Tom Goldstein, a Supreme Court lawyer whose Scotusblog website tracks the court and is sponsored by Bloomberg Law. “We have four pending cases that may be cited for at least a century.”

The drama will unfold over several days, starting at 10 a.m., Washington time, today. The court traditionally finishes its term in the final days of June, meaning all four rulings are likely by the week’s end.

Even before the court issues its first decisions, it may announce a blockbuster case for its 2013-14 term. At 9:30 a.m. the justices will release a list of new cases, potentially including a showdown over President Barack Obama’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board.

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