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High Court Opens Newest Term Under Glare of Media Spotlight

By Gaylord Shaw

Solemn-faced as usual, the nine Supreme Court justices took their places on the nation’s highest bench Monday with nary a blink at the glare of the political spotlight suddenly focusing on them.

“I am pleased to announce the 2000-2001 term of the court is now open,” Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist intoned to conclude the court’s three-month summer recess.

He was following the script traditionally used on the first Monday in October to formally end one court term and begin a new one. Rehnquist then ordered publication of “the orders” -- the hundreds of appeals the court was rejecting -- and called the first of two cases the justices had scheduled for oral arguments.

Neither case was the cause of the extraordinary attention aimed at the seven men and two women in the front of the vaulted courtroom -- the first case involved bankruptcy law, the second, arbitration law.

Rather, this day’s glare of the political spotlight focused on whether or when any of the nine seats will become vacant, potentially giving the next president a chance to reshape a court which in recent years has tilted five to four toward the conservative side of most critical issues.

By noon the justices retreated through the red velvet curtains behind the bench without leaving any verbal clues of their plans. Eight of the nine justices are past or are approaching society’s traditional retirement age of 65 -- Rehnquist’s 76th birthday was Sunday -- but none has given any public indication of plans to abandon his or her lifetime appointment.

After hovering in the background through much of this year’s presidential campaign, the issue seems certain to come up in Tuesday night’s debate between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore. “The court is the issue that makes this the most important election in two-thirds of a century,” said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal advocacy group People for the American Way, at a Capitol Hill news conference Monday.