WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ends its work Monday with the highest of drama: an anticipated retirement, a ruling on the constitutionality of government Ten Commandments displays and decisions in other major cases.
Traditionally there is an air of suspense as the justices meet for the final time before breaking for three months. Justices usually wait until then to resolve blockbuster cases.
Added to that is the expectation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist (search) is presiding over the court for the last time. Rehnquist has thyroid cancer and many court experts believe his retirement is imminent.
"There's enormous drama and anticipation. Is he going to announce his resignation? Are we going to spend this summer in a confirmation fight?" said Erwin Chemerinsky, a Duke law professor.
Long lines have formed several hours before the court's recent sessions so people could get a seat in the packed courtroom. On Monday, the crowd will include supporters and opponents of Ten Commandments (search) monuments. Supporters usually gather outside the court praying and singing hymns.
"It's a big day. History being made, that's a lot of what it's about," said Maureen Mahoney, a Washington lawyer and former Rehnquist law clerk.
Also expected are nine women in judicial robes who call themselves "Roe Rangers," to bring attention to uncertainty about the court's makeup and abortion rights.
Justices have a few cases left to resolve, including two of the most-watched of the term: the Ten Commandments appeals from Texas and Kentucky and a case that will determine the liability of Internet file-sharing services for clients' illegal swapping of songs and movies.
Also Monday, justices are expected to announce whether they will hear appeals from two journalists who may face jail time for refusing to reveal sources in the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.
Lawyers for Time magazine's Matthew Cooper (search) and The New York Times' Judith Miller (search) have asked the court to clarify protections reporters have in keeping sources confidential. The cases could not be heard until December.
The Supreme Court term already has covered cases involving the execution of teenage killers, state bans on Internet orders from out-of-state wineries and federal sentencing rules.
Overshadowing it all, however, has been Rehnquist's health and questions about the future of the court, which has not had a vacancy for 11 years, a modern record.
"More people are paying attention to the court than they have in years even though the docket has not been earthshaking," said Vikram Amar, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings and a former Supreme Court clerk. "It changes the importance of this year in Supreme Court history."
Rehnquist was absent from the bench for five months after disclosing in October that he had cancer. He has refused to say whether he has the most serious type of thyroid cancer. He speaks with difficulty because of a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe.
"One or two justices may announce their retirement on Monday. Or none may," said Suzanna Sherry, a law professor at Vanderbilt University (search) who specializes in the Supreme Court. "In the past there has not been this kind of anticipation."
Rehnquist could announce his decision at the Monday morning session. He could wait until later in the day after justices hold their last private meeting of the term. He could wait until later in the week, after the crowds have left the court.
The final rulings of the term often come down to 5-4 votes. Sometimes, justices who dissent read objections from the bench.
"It's a zoo," veteran Supreme Court lawyer Carter Phillips said of final ruling days.
The Ten Commandments issue has gotten the most attention, in part because it has been 25 years since the court last dealt with it.
Justices ruled then that the Ten Commandments could not be displayed in public schools. Now they will decide if a granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol and framed copies of commandments in two Kentucky courthouses are allowed.
Rulings are also awaited in a Tennessee death penalty case, an appeal that will decide police departments' liability for not enforcing restraining orders, and a challenge to the tight control cable companies hold over high-speed Internet service.