Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


US Supreme Court opens with historic changes

The Supreme Court is in the midst of a significant transformation after eleven years with the same lineup of justices. Since 2005, four new members have joined the court, two on the conservative side and two on the liberal side.

By Staff writer / October 3, 2010

Chief Justice John Roberts, right, and the court's newest Justice Elena Kagan, stand for photographers after a formal investiture ceremony for Kagan at the Supreme Court in Washington, Friday, Oct. 1.

Haraz N. Ghanbari/AP

Enlarge

Washington

Offensive protests at military funerals, a ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, and an effort in Arizona to police the hiring of illegal immigrants are among the top cases confronting the US Supreme Court in its 2010-2011 term.

Skip to next paragraph

The high court’s new term, which begins Monday and runs through June, is also notable because it will provide the first genuine insight into what kind of justice Elena Kagan will become. Ms. Kagan won Senate confirmation in August to replace retired Justice John Paul Stevens.

The Supreme Court is in the midst of a significant transformation after eleven years with the same lineup of justices. Since 2005, four new members have joined the court, two on the conservative side and two on the liberal side.

The recent arrival of Kagan brings a heightened sense of expectation to the term with historic change taking root. Three of the nine justices now are women.

At the same time there is an air of uncertainty. This is the first time in 35 years the Supreme Court begins its work without Justice Stevens on the bench.

“No one who is sitting on the court has ever sat without Stevens as a colleague,” Washington lawyer Jerrold Ganzfried told a briefing at the Washington Legal Foundation. “That is going to be a big change.”

Justice Kennedy still the potential tie-breaker

Legal analysts say the new lineup of justices will maintain the 4 to 4 liberal-conservative balance of power that has existed for years, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the potential tie-breaking swing vote.

But there are also more subtle influences in play. Chief Justice John Roberts appears to be making an effort to unify the court when possible, somewhat undercutting Kennedy’s power as the swing justice.

At the same time, the retirement of Stevens this year elevates Kennedy to the third most senior justice – behind Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia, both conservatives. Kennedy’s new seniority potentially makes him the most senior justice in cases where he swings to the liberal side.

Under court tradition, the most senior justice on the majority side of a case has the authority to assign who writes the opinion. Legal analysts will be watching to see if this becomes a factor in how often Kennedy casts a swing vote and delivers a liberal victory.

Another potential development to watch, analysts say, will be who fills Stevens’ role as the long-time leader of the court’s liberal wing. Stevens’ experience and gentle, respectful manner helped maintain an important behind-the-scenes dynamic at the court.

Permissions