WASHINGTON (AP) — Six men and three women will emerge from behind red velvet curtains, black-robed and silent. They will step up toward a raised bench in a cavernous courtroom as the court marshal’s call of “oyez, oyez, oyez” echoes off the columned walls, announcing the arrival of the Supreme Court of the United States.
As the nine justices settle into their individual leather-bound chairs, every eye in the court chamber will gaze up at them Monday and wait anxiously to hear them question lawyers on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul law — a decision that could define this particular court for the ages.
Because the court bars live television or radio broadcasts from its building across from the U.S. Capitol, few regular Americans get to observe its pageantry and traditions. Even fewer get in for history-making arguments like this week’s over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because many of the 400-or-so seats in the courtroom are taken by lawyers, politicians, new media and personal guests of the court.
But the lucky few inside will see a wide range of style, personality and temperament among the nine justices.
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Reclining in his chair just to the right of the center, as the audience looks at the court, will be Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat near the middle is symbolic of his current role as the swing voter who decides many closely divided cases. Tall and thin, Kennedy will lean forward to ask questions and every single word he says will be dissected for possible clues about the final decisions. Kennedy will often display feelings in questions, but it’s not a good bet to assume his pointed questions will automatically match his final reading of the law.
Justice Samuel Alito, also on the right side of the bench one seat from the end, often uses his questions to telegraph exactly how he feels about issues. While he doesn’t speak as often as other justices, his questions, often pragmatic with little flash, cut straight to the heart of the position he wants the court to take.
Unlike the men, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan very rarely, if ever, recline in their chairs, choosing instead to sit up and wait to shoot a sharply worded question at the lawyers. The three women — Kagan and Sotomayor at the far ends of the bench and Ginsburg nearer the middle on the right — often jockey to ask the first questions, interrupting a lawyer’s rehearsed presentation in its first few syllables with a question that could shape the discussions to follow.
Ginsburg usually wears a decorative cloth jabot around the neckline of her robe, like retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wore. The most diminutive justice, Ginsburg usually sits with her head crooked down. Her questions come slow and steady, sometimes even hesitantly, but clearly enunciated.