WHEN Chief Justice William Rehnquist today opens the 1993-94 term of the United States Supreme Court, a slight, erect woman - her large glasses and pursed lips giving her a quizzical appearance - will be seated at the end of the nine-justice bench in the spot traditionally occupied by the court's newest member. She is Ruth Bader Ginsburg, named by President Clinton last summer to succeed retiring Justice Byron White.
This is a new-look Supreme Court, not only because Justice Ginsburg is a newcomer, but also because this is the first time two women have sat on the nation's highest bench. Ginsburg, who joins Sandra Day O'Connor, is expected to bring a liberal voice to what has been a conservative-leaning body.
Though she is not expected to change the outcome of many votes, the new jurist could begin to influence the tone and scope of the court's rulings. She will bring a new chemistry to the bench in a term that many say will not be marked by landmark decisions but will feature important individual cases, such as on abortion.
``She will provide a reliable vote for the liberal position on civil rights, sex discrimination, and similar issues,'' says Mark Tushnet, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington. He speculates, however, that Ginsburg might make her presence felt quickly on capital punishment. White usually voted with a 5 to 4 majority to uphold death sentences. Several death-penalty cases are due this term. During confirmation hearings in July, Ginsburg refused to disclose her views on capital punishment.
Although her predecessor, Justice White, was also appointed by a Democrat, President Kennedy, he had become part of the court's conservative majority on many issues. He belonged to a 6-3 or 7-2 majority on many criminal-law cases, but found himself in the minority on some cases - as exemplified by his opposition to the constitutional protection of abortion.
Ginsburg's effect on the court will be felt through what are, by all accounts, a forceful intellect, finely honed legal craftsmanship, and her ability - demonstrated as a pioneering litigator for women's rights in the 1970s - patiently to pursue a long-march strategy in the evolution of constitutional doctrine.
In addition to the cases already on the docket, the justices will be accepting 70 to 90 more appeals in the next few months. The Supreme Court invariably comes up with at least a few surprises before a term ends in June.
These are some of the major cases due to come before the court:
* Individual rights. The court will decide if the plaintiff in a case involving sexual harassment in the workplace must prove that a supervisor's lewd behavior caused severe psychological injury. In the only abortion-related case on the calendar so far, the issue is whether abortion clinics can use RICO, the federal anti-racketeering law, against Operation Rescue and other anti-abortion protesters. (Last term, the court ruled that a federal civil rights law originally targeted against the Ku Klux Klan could not be used to curb abortion-clinic protests). The justices also will decide if the race- and sex-discrimination provisions of the 1991 Civil Rights Act apply retroactively to cases pending when the law was enacted, and whether the Constitution prohibits sex discrimination as well as racial bias in the selection of jurors.
* Voting rights. Last June, the court ruled that an oddly shaped congressional district in North Carolina, designed under the Voting Rights Act to ensure the election of a black representative, might violate the constitutional rights of white voters. This term, the court faces voting-rights cases from Florida and Georgia. The underlying issue is whether the Voting Rights Act affords minority citizens equal rights only in the casting of ballots, or is intended to enhance minority power in the outcome of elections.
* Speech. For the first time, the court will examine the application of the First Amendment to cable television, in a challenge by cable operators to a federal law requiring them to allocate channel capacity to local broadcast stations. And the justices will decide if a rap group's bawdy parody of the Roy Orbison song ``Oh, Pretty Woman'' was a copyright infringement. Musical celebrities including Michael Jackson, Dolly Parton, and satirist Mark Russell have filed briefs on the issue.
* Crime. In the most important capital-punishment case, the court will consider one of the ``aggravating circumstances'' that juries consider when imposing a death sentence. It will look again at civil-forfeiture laws used by federal authorities in the drug war. (Last term, the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment restriction on ``excessive fines'' applied to forfeitures). And in a specialized due-process case that could have broader significance, the justices will rule on the procedures for selecting military judges in court-martial cases.
* The environment. On the calendar are cases involving both hazardous and solid waste. The issue in the latter dispute is whether municipal ordinances mandating that garbage be deposited in local landfills in which a town has an economic interest interfere with interstate commerce.
In addition to Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices O'Connor and Ginsburg, the members of the Supreme Court are Justices Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Clarence Thomas.