The Supreme Court ends its work tomorrow with the highest of drama: an anticipated retirement, a ruling on the constitutionality of government Ten Commandments displays and decisions in other major cases.
Traditionally, there is an air of suspense as the justices meet for the final time before breaking for three months. Justices usually wait until then to resolve blockbuster cases.
Added to that is the expectation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is presiding over the court for the last time. Chief Justice Rehnquist has thyroid cancer and many court experts believe his retirement is imminent.
Long lines have formed several hours before the court’s recent sessions so people could get a seat in the packed courtroom. Tomorrow, the crowd will include supporters and opponents of Ten Commandments monuments. Supporters usually gather outside the court praying and singing hymns.
“It’s a big day; history being made. That’s a lot of what it’s about,” said Maureen Mahoney, a Washington lawyer and former Rehnquist law clerk.
Also expected are nine women in judicial robes who call themselves “Roe Rangers,” to bring attention to uncertainty about the court’s makeup and abortion rights.
Justices have a few cases left to resolve, including two of the most-watched of the term: the Ten Commandments appeals from Texas and Kentucky and a case that will determine the liability of Internet file-sharing services for clients’ illegal swapping of songs and movies.
Also tomorrow, justices are expected to announce whether they will hear appeals from two journalists who may face jail time for refusing to reveal sources in the leak of an undercover CIA officer’s identity.
Attorneys for Time magazine’s Matthew Cooper and the New York Times’ Judith Miller have asked the court to clarify protections reporters have in keeping sources confidential. The cases could not be heard until December.
The Supreme Court term already has covered cases involving the execution of teenage killers, state bans on Internet orders from out-of-state wineries and federal sentencing rules.
Overshadowing it all, however, has been Chief Justice Rehnquist’s health and questions about the future of the court, which has not had a vacancy for 11 years, a modern record.
In addition to Chief Justice Rehnquist, 80, older members of the court include Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, 75, and John Paul Stevens, 85.
Chief Justice Rehnquist was absent from the bench for five months after disclosing in October that he had cancer. He has refused to say whether he has the most serious type of thyroid cancer. He speaks with difficulty because of a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe.
The chief justice could announce his decision at the morning session. He could wait until later in the day after justices hold their last private meeting of the term. He could wait until later in the week, after the crowds have left the court.
The final rulings of the term often come down to 5-4 votes. Sometimes, justices who dissent read objections from the bench.