Some see the court as the center of the nation's legal stability, changing course reluctantly to keep the country from getting judicial whiplash. Others, especially opponents of abortion, see the court as the ultimate bogeyman.
Whatever the opinion, the high court contains an interesting cast of characters.
Unlike other courts created by Congress or state legislatures, the Supreme Court is established in the Constitution. Article III says, "The judicial power of the United States shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and in such inferior courts as the Congress may from time to time ordain and establish."
Article III also gives federal judges, including the Supreme Court justices, lifetime tenure "during good behavior." The president can appoint federal judges; he can't fire them. They can only be impeached by Congress.
Created by the Constitution, nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate, the high court justices still do not exercise unlimited power.
Many of the restrictions on the justices are self-imposed over the centuries. However, the fact remains, the Supreme Court can issue orders, and expects those orders to be obeyed, but the high court has no mechanism to enforce its will.
At times, the president has simply refused to obey the high court.
The classic example came in 1832 when President Andrew Jackson decided to forcibly remove the Cherokee Nation from Georgia, sending the Indians on the infamous "Trail of Tears" to Oklahoma.
The Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice John Marshall, tried to block the removal.
Jackson rebelled. In a probably apocryphal vignette, Jackson is supposed to have said, "John Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!"
Fictional or not, Jackson eventually got his way, and thousands of Cherokee men, women and children died on the trail.
However, most of the time, even strong chief executives like former President Richard Nixon felt compelled to follow Supreme Court rulings they didn't like -- remember the Oval Office audio tapes? Not to do so would be to introduce chaos into American public discourse.
John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the United States, at 54 is the youngest member of the court. His background includes clerking for his predecessor, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who was a champion of state rights.
Former President George W. Bush nominated him as chief justice in 2005.
Since then, Roberts has let it be known the time for "systemic remedies for racial discrimination" has passed, a 2009 analysis in The New Yorker said. Roberts can be abrupt from the bench. In a Connecticut case eventually decided in favor of white firefighters who said they suffered discrimination in promotion procedures, Roberts told a city lawyer defending practices that favored minorities: "You maybe don't care whether it's Jones or Smith who is not getting the promotion. ... All you care about is his race."
At 73, Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't appear to have lost a step as the court's feistiest conservative. Former President Ronald Reagan nominated him in 1986.
More than any other member of the court, Scalia believes the language used in the earliest days of the country still has weight today when it comes to the Constitution.
In "Antonin Scalia's Jurisprudence," author Ralph Rossum says, "Respecting the original meaning of the constitutional text is, for Justice Scalia, the only way of making judicial decision-making consistent with the rule of law and democracy. The greatest threat to both, he believes, is the temptation of judges to substitute their own values for those of the framers, thereby cutting legal rules free from their moorings and, too often, usurping elected legislatures and the popular will. The constitutional text may at times be ambiguous, he concedes, but the best response to such ambiguity is to defer to American traditions, not to the enthusiasms of the moment."
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, also 73, was nominated by Reagan and took his seat in 1988.
While considered a swing vote on the nine-member court, Kennedy is a reliable member of the conservative block -- except when he is not. When he breaks free of the bloc, Kennedy can make jaws drop.
Writing for a liberal-moderate majority in 2003's Lawrence vs. Texas, Kennedy not only struck down the Texas anti-sodomy law -- aimed at gays but applied to heterosexuals as well -- he basically told the government at all levels to get out of the bedroom.
"Liberty protects the person from unwarranted government intrusions into a dwelling or other private places," Kennedy wrote. "In our tradition the state is not omnipresent in the home. And there are other spheres of our lives and existence, outside the home, where the state should not be a dominant presence. Freedom extends beyond spatial bounds. Liberty presumes an autonomy of self that includes freedom of thought, belief, expression and certain intimate conduct. ... The Texas statute furthers no legitimate state interest which can justify its intrusion into the personal and private life of the individual."
Justice Clarence Thomas, the court's only black member, is 61. Former President George H.W. Bush nominated him to the high court, and he took his seat in 1991.
Thomas is famous for having little to say from the bench during argument. His questions are so rare that when he does ask one, heads pop up all over the courtroom to see who's speaking. He and Scalia generally share judicial philosophies.
Thomas is among the friendliest of the justices, and articulate in face to face conversation. Blasted for his views by civil rights advocates, Thomas believes affirmative action is a drain on African-American progress.
Unlike most of the court, he does not believe in free speech for public school students.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg at 76 has been plagued by occasional health problems, but shows little sign of slowing down. Former President Bill Clinton nominated her in 1993.
Ginsburg generally opposes the death penalty, but her most characteristic case came in 1996's United States vs. Virginia.
A champion of gender equality throughout her career, Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion in the case, saying Virginia violated the Constitution when it refused to admit women to the Virginia Military Institute.
"Neither federal nor state government acts compatibly with (constitutional) equal protection when a law or official policy denies to women, simply because they are women, full citizenship stature -- equal opportunity to aspire, achieve, participate in and contribute to society based on their individual talents and capacities," Ginsburg wrote.
From the bench, Ginsburg is self-effacing, but usually manages to get her questions in.
Justice Stephen G. Breyer, 71, is a liberal, but not as liberal as the others in his four-member bloc. Breyer was nominated to the high court by Clinton and took his seat in 1994.
Breyer will often wait till late into the argument before taking the questioning in a direction he believes should be examined. Unlike other justices, Breyer often tells lawyers he's looking for answers, not trying to influence other court members, with his questions from the bench. "I really want to know" the answer, he says often.
An interesting sidelight: If U.S. Sen. John Kerry had won the presidential election in 2004, it might have been Breyer not Roberts named chief justice. Breyer was a protege of the late U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, who pressed for his nomination in 1993 and 1994. Breyer also has administrative experience valuable in a chief justice. He was chief judge on the federal appeals court in Boston.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr., 59, was named to the high court by former President George W. Bush and took his seat in 2006, succeeding moderate conservative Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Alito appears to be more conservative than O'Connor, but needs more time on the Supreme Court to establish a consistent jurisprudence.
With Roberts, Scalia, Thomas and sometimes Kennedy, Alito is seen as a member of the high court conservative bloc.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, 55, is one of the youngest members of the high court, one of two current women justices, the third woman appointed to the Supreme Court (behind the retired Sandra Day O'Connor and the serving Ginsburg) and the first Hispanic on the high court.
Former President George H.W. Bush first appointed her to the federal bench in 1991; Clinton named her to the appeals court in New York, and President Barack Obama named her to the Supreme Court last May.
She is generally considered a loyal member of the four-member liberal bloc on the Supreme Court, but like Alito her tenure has been so short there's not much yet to analyze in terms of jurisprudence.
Which brings us to Justice John Paul Stevens, at 89 the liberal lion of the Supreme Court. Named to the high court by former President Gerald Ford, he took his seat in December 1975, making him the longest serving justice now on the court and its only protestant on a bench with six Catholics and two Jews. His lively persona belies his age.
Stevens was expected to be a conservative, but like many on the high court, he became more liberal as time went by. Though he was instrumental in restoring the death penalty in the 1970s, Stevens has become an uncompromising opponent of capital punishment, and often dissents with Ginsburg when the high court refuses to stop an execution.
Stevens ignited a storm of retirement speculation early this term when he hired less than his full complement of clerks for the new term. Retired justices usually only hire two; court members can hire up to six.
Now that the Supreme Court has begun its long winter break, and Stevens has headed back to his Florida condo for the recess, the speculation is beginning to stir again.
Many analysts say keep an eye on U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, 52, as a possible successor.
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