WASHINGTON (AP) — Six men and three women will emerge from behind red velvet curtains, black-robed and silent. They will step up toward a raised bench in a cavernous courtroom as the court marshal's call of "oyez, oyez, oyez" echoes off the columned walls, announcing the arrival of the Supreme Court of the United States.
As the nine justices settle into their individual leather-bound chairs, every eye in the court chamber will gaze up at them Monday and wait anxiously to hear them question lawyers on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul law — a decision that could define this particular court for the ages.
Because the court bars live television or radio broadcasts from its building across from the U.S. Capitol, few regular Americans get to observe its pageantry and traditions. Even fewer get in for history-making arguments like this week's over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, because many of the 400-or-so seats in the courtroom are taken by lawyers, politicians, new media and personal guests of the court.
But the lucky few inside will see a wide range of style, personality and temperament among the nine justices.
Reclining in his chair just to the right of the center, as the audience looks at the court, will be Justice Anthony Kennedy, whose seat near the middle is symbolic of his current role as the swing voter who decides many closely divided cases. Tall and thin, Kennedy will lean forward to ask questions and every single word he says will be dissected for possible clues about the final decisions. Kennedy will often display feelings in questions, but it's not a good bet to assume his pointed questions will automatically match his final reading of the law.
Justice Samuel Alito, also on the right side of the bench one seat from the end, often uses his questions to telegraph exactly how he feels about issues. While he doesn't speak as often as other justices, his questions, often pragmatic with little flash, cut straight to the heart of the position he wants the court to take.
Unlike the men, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan very rarely, if ever, recline in their chairs, choosing instead to sit up and wait to shoot a sharply worded question at the lawyers. The three women — Kagan and Sotomayor at the far ends of the bench and Ginsburg nearer the middle on the right — often jockey to ask the first questions, interrupting a lawyer's rehearsed presentation in its first few syllables with a question that could shape the discussions to follow.
Ginsburg usually wears a decorative cloth jabot around the neckline of her robe, like retired Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wore. The most diminutive justice, Ginsburg usually sits with her head crooked down. Her questions come slow and steady, sometimes even hesitantly, but clearly enunciated.
Sotomayor and Kagan aren't hesitant to ask questions either, sometimes butting heads with other justices to pose them. Sotomayor can be persistent and demanding of lawyers with the interrogating style of a prosecutor, which she used to be.
Kagan, the court's newest member, asks more big-picture, analytical questions like the law professor she once was.
Justice Clarence Thomas doesn't reveal his thinking by speaking out or asking questions at arguments, but he's a reliable conservative vote. Thomas' last question to a lawyer came in February 2006 in a death penalty case. He has kept public silence in oral arguments since then. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have anything to say: Thomas can often be seen whispering and laughing off-mike during arguments with his neighbors Justices Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer.
By contrast, Breyer is known for injecting often complex hypothetical questions into most important arguments. Though he prefers to let other justices speak first, Breyer, seated between Thomas and Sotomayor, has been ranked as the most talkative justice on the current court by Timothy Johnson, a University of Minnesota political science professor who has studied the oral arguments since 1998.
Breyer's opposite number among the court's conservatives, Scalia is similarly talkative and is ranked the second most vocal by Johnson. Often pithy, biting or witty, Scalia is known to bring chuckles from courtroom observers and the lawyers — and maybe even the justices themselves. From his seat on left side of the bench, Scalia won't hesitate to verbally scorch a lawyer or another justice he disagrees with by calling their remarks "absurd" or "ridiculous."
If questioning gets too far afield, Chief Justice John Roberts, who occupies the court's center chair, will intervene.
Roberts is the ringmaster who opens arguments by calling lawyers to speak and later telling them when time is up. Usually he lets them finish their last sentence but sometimes cuts off the long-winded with a curt "thank you." He also referees talking time between justices who are vying to get questions in. Roberts, who successfully argued before the court himself, normally waits until other justices have spoken before peering over his reading glasses and posing pointed inquires that can indicate where he stands on the issues.