With only two days remaining in the US Supreme Court's term last week, Justice David Souter broke from his hectic schedule to talk to a group of high-school civics teachers visiting the court.
He told them if they could take one message back to their students it should be this: Despite any disagreements among his colleagues on the bench all the justices genuinely respect each other. At the time, the comment didn't mean much to the teachers. But two days later, his point became clearer.
As the court's conservative wing handed down a series of controversial decisions sharply limiting the power of the federal government to regulate the states, it fell to Justice Souter to write the lead dissent. He did not shy from the task. He released a blistering 58-page dissent in answer to a 51-page opinion. And he told his conservative colleagues that they "could not be more fundamentally mistaken."
Not exactly a street brawl episode of "The Jerry Springer Show," but this was about as close to high drama as it gets in the distinguished, white-columned building that most Americans equate with the essence of justice.
Souter's comments to the teachers illustrate the importance individual justices place on public perception of the court. Even though most Americans are unable to name even a single Supreme Court justice, the nation nonetheless has strong positive feelings not only for the important role of the institution, but also the dignified way in which the court conducts its business.
In an era when the White House and Congress have been mired in a swamp of personal attack, scandal, and the politics of destruction, the US Supreme Court has remained a beacon of dignity and civility.
"The court as an institution always ranks ahead in public-opinion polls of the president and Congress," says Barbara Perry, a professor of government at Sweet Briar College in Virginia and author of "The Priestly Tribe: The Supreme Court's Image in the American Mind." "That may seem like a logical truism, but it is an important position for the court and one that it should endeavor to keep."
Court as a mirror of society
Given the nature of the Supreme Court's work - debating and deciding the most controversial and divisive issues in the nation - that is no small task.
Part of it, analysts say, is that the court's nine justices represent something of a cross section of American opinion. The result is that many of the tribunal's rulings - even the toughest of them - are a reflection of the nation.
"I think in many ways they are remarkably in step [with the nation]," says Barry Friedman, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He cites two examples: recent court rulings in the federalism area granting more power to the states, and decisions over the years restricting the rights of criminal defendants.
"I sense that the public was looking for more devolution of authority to the states and the court has given it to them," he says. "By and large the public was looking to come down on criminal suspects and the court has given it to them."
But other analysts say the Supreme Court under Chief Justice William Rehnquist is out of touch with the country. "I think this court is masquerading as a court that is doing what the people want, but it is not a democratic court. It is overruling the people in many respects," says Stephen Gottlieb, a professor at Albany Law School in New York.
"This court is at least as radical as the Warren court," he says, referring to the liberal activist court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren in the 1960s. "The question is which court represents the traditions of the American people better."
One hallmark of the Rehnquist court is an effort by its conservative members to reverse the liberal rulings of the Warren court. The result is a Rehnquist legacy that includes reducing many of the broader rights granted to criminal defendants in the 1960s, making it harder for suspects, illegal immigrants, and convicts to challenge the legal system.
The Rehnquist court has adopted a similar approach in matters dealing with race.
This approach is opposed by many liberals. But because of the structure of the court, their criticism is directed not at the institution itself but at the conservative wing led by the chief justice. At the same time, those same liberals and moderates find solace in the sharply worded dissents filed by liberal justices.
As the court turns
The end result is that any criticism of the court is tempered by the expectation that the democratic process, and the president's power to appoint new justices, will eventually swing the balance in a different direction.
In addition, the court has another big advantage over other government institutions. With only a few exceptions, it has avoided any taint of scandal. "There have been 108 members of the court and their lives both personally and professionally have remained remarkably scandal free," says Ms. Perry.
That record applies to most of the current justices as well. "It is such a contrast with the politicians in the Congress and the presidency," says Perry.