The U.S. Supreme Court begins a new term today with one new member and with a cavalcade of court-watchers looking for clues to where this group is headed.
The cases on the high court's docket may not rattle the rafters of justice — nothing expected to inflame the debates over abortion or gay marriage. But legal scholars see portals that could reveal much about the court's ideological split and whether incoming Justice Sonia Sotomayor changes the dynamics.
Besides Sotomayor, the justices under closest scrutiny are Anthony Kennedy, who commonly wields the swing vote in 5-4 decisions, and Chief Justice John G. Roberts.
"The real question remains not so much how will the court change, but how might Justice Kennedy change?" said Georgetown University professor David Cole. "It's all about Kennedy. Which side is going to move most effectively in persuading him?"
Under Roberts' leadership, the court has tended to direct its rulings toward narrow and less controversial aspects of case law. But at any moment, he and his fellow conservatives could cast a wider net — even if it means upending prior rulings.
Roberts has stated he is disinclined to do that.
Ever since Sandra Day O'Connor's retirement from the high court in 2006, "it's been moving further to the right," however subtly, said Doug Kendall, president of the Constitutional Accountability Center, a judicial think tank.
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