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Inside the Supreme Court

Editor's Note: Joan Biskupic, who covers the court for The Post, traces the process that produces such famous decisions as Miranda v. Arizona and Roe v. Wade. We also highlight cases and people that help shape the law of the land.

The Supreme Court's efforts to establish the law of the land begin in secrecy and near solitude.

On Fridays during the court's term, which officially begins on the first Monday in October, the nine justices meet in a small, wood-paneled conference room to decide which cases they deem worth hearing.

They meet without law clerks, secretaries or anyone else. The most junior justice is seated nearest the door so he can respond if anyone knocks.

As the last resort for people who believe that lower courts have failed them and as arbiter of the Constitution, the Supreme Court will, simply by selecting a case, immediately lift the lives and human situations it contains to national significance. Its rulings will affect not only the two contesting parties, known as petitioner and respondent, but also may change life for all Americans for generations.

Exterior of the court building Guarding the entrance of the Supreme Court building are two statues – a woman as "Contemplation of Justice" and, not shown, a man as "Authority of Law." Inscribed above the columns is "Equal Justice Under the Law." It was not until 1935 that the court had its own building. (Photo by Fred J. Maroon.)

The drama of the cases chosen may be traced, from the "petition for certiorari" – a request that the Supreme Court hear a case lost in a lower federal or state court – to the resolution announced months later from the court's grand mahogany bench.

About 7,000 petitions arrive by mail or messenger each term at "the Marble Palace," as historian John Frank called the court's building on First Street NE just east of the Capitol. In the end, the justices hand down about 80 signed rulings, each reflecting decades of legal precedent, the current justices' beliefs and personalities and the enduring decorum that defines this 207-year-old institution,the least public of the three branches of national government.

"Many of the court's ultimate decisions are predictable, but there are always a number of surprises," said Maureen Mahoney, who was a law clerk to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist in the 1979-80 term and now represents private clients before the court.

"And it is often the surprising rulings that have the broadest impact on Americans."

The public normally notices only the final decision in a case. But much skirmishing occurs before that, most of it behind the scenes in private debate, votes and negotiations among the justices.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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