The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court headed for its new term Monday with a high-profile case between Altria Group Inc., parent of the cigarette company Philip Morris, and smokers seeking damages, addressing the limits of lawsuits against cigarette manufacturers.
A similar case scheduled involving Altria also highlights a tension between state supreme courts and the highest court in the land. The Oregon State Supreme Court rejected the Supreme Court's recommendation to reduce the damages awarded to a smoker, so now a battle between federal and state judicial power ensues.
But there won't be many hot cases in the upcoming session, as the docket stands now. One case that may draw attention will be a ruling on the Federal Communications Commission's allowance of certain expletives on television-the first of such an "indecency" case in a while. From the U.S. Navy's sonar waves affecting whales to anti-retaliation laws for employees, most of the upcoming cases aren't going to bring the cable news networks running.
Deciding these controversies are nine presidential-appointed justices. Republican presidents appointed seven of the nine justices, but that hasn't always translated into court decisions that conservatives would prefer. Outwardly, the justices make decisions based not on their personal convictions but on their judicial philosophy, which determines how they read the U.S. Constitution. But personal and moral concerns historically come into play.
While many expect the court to make more right-leaning decisions this term under Chief Justice John Roberts, a President Bush-appointee, the court under his leadership so far has not issued decisions entirely pro-Republican. In one verdict during the last session, the majority of justices opposed the administration's continuing custody of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay without speedy trials.
But last year the court did uphold a partial-birth abortion ban, a victory for conservatives. It, however, was a tight decision, 5-4.
The new president, whoever he may be, will undoubtedly appoint at least one justice. Justice John Paul Stevens, at 88, is apparently waiting for the results of this election to retire. Though appointed by a Republican president (Gerald Ford), Stevens is considered one of the most liberal members of the court.
Who are these justices, who serve longer terms than any president and most members of Congress, and don't have to sweat about being voted out of office?
Chief Justice John Roberts
Roberts, while right-leaning, is considered one of the more moderate members of the court. Following President Bush's nomination, a Democratic Congress approved him as chief justice and he took his seat in 2005.
Roberts is known for his respect for precedent when it comes to court decisions. While some justices believe in an evolving understanding of the Constitution's meaning, Roberts would be considered an originalist, someone who sticks to what is widely held as the original intent of the Constitution.
Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama voted against Roberts' nomination, while Republican candidate John McCain voted for him. Obama's "nay" vote is noteworthy since Roberts was confirmed by half of the Democrats in the Senate.
Obama explained when questioned about the matter at the Saddleback Church's Civic Forum on the Presidency in August: "I find him to be a very compelling person, you know, in conversation individually. He's clearly smart, very thoughtful. I will tell you that how I've seen him operate since he went to the bench confirms the suspicions that I had and the reason that I voted against him."
What Obama is probably referring to is Roberts' votes on matters such as upholding the partial-birth abortion ban, which Obama opposed.
Roberts replaced the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.
Associate Justice Sam Alito
Alito was appointed by President Bush and confirmed by a close vote in the Senate in 2006. A more right-leaning member of the court, he worked with Roberts as a lawyer in the Reagan administration.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy
Kennedy joined the Supreme Court in 1988 after President Reagan nominated him. A moderate, he was easily confirmed after the Senate rejected a more conservative nominee, Robert Bork. Kennedy, a Catholic, has functioned as a swing voter, with few able to predict what his opinion might be. Since Alito's confirmation, he often controls the direction of court decisions.
Associate Justice David Souter
Souter joined the Supreme Court in 1990 after a nomination by President George H.W. Bush. Souter has also shown deference toward previous decisions, though he also has shown in his votes an evolving understanding of the Constitution. He tends to vote liberal.
Associate Justice Clarence Thomas
Thomas is a far-right voice among the justices. A George H.W. Bush nominee, he was narrowly confirmed and took his seat in 1991. Though only the second African-American Supreme Court justice, Oprah Winfrey wouldn't have him on her show, which goes to show how conservative he is.
Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg
Ginsberg is further to the left than most of the court. She took her seat in 1993 after being nominated by President Clinton. She is a "living constitutionalist," which means she believes the Constitution's meaning changes over time.
Associate Justice Antonin Scalia
Scalia, also a voice on the right, was nominated by President Reagan and took his seat in 1986. He is a regular dissenter from the majority opinion, and holds to a more literal interpretation of the Constitution. While most of the justices stay out of the public eye outside of the courtroom, Scalia has been more vocal over the last few years.
Associate Justice John Paul Stevens
Stevens has been a justice on the court for 33 years. President Ford nominated him in 1975, and now the 88-year-old justice waits for the right moment for retirement. Though appointed by a Republican, he is widely held to be one of the most liberal members of the court, though he often votes against government in favor of the individual. He is the most regular dissenter in decisions.
Associate Justice Stephen Breyer
Breyer is a President Clinton-nominee who joined the court in 1994 and leans left in his decisions. He is also a living constitutionalist, someone who believes the Constitution's meaning changes over time.