Now that John G. Roberts Jr. has been confirmed as the nation's 17th chief justice, he faces a series of big cases in the next few months and a docket that's likely to touch the lives of tens of millions of Americans in the next few decades.
This term alone, the Supreme Court will decide whether states are going too far in trying to restrict abortion and in trying to lure business across state lines. The justices also will determine whether the federal government went out of bounds when it attached strings to federal funding and tried to prevent physicians from assisting suicide.
Beyond this term, court-watchers see the high court delving into hot-button issues such as late-term, or what critics call "partial-birth," abortion, gay marriage and the narrowing of civil rights in the era of terrorism.
"We are in an era of a fair amount of ferment and change," said Lee A. Albert, a professor of constitutional law at the University at Buffalo, "and that gives rise to constitutional questions" that only the nine-member Supreme Court can decide.
The Buffalo-born, Harvard-educated Roberts is the first new chief justice in 19 years. And with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor set to retire as soon as President Bush names and the Senate confirms a successor, the high court could soon find itself with two first-year justices for the first time since 1972.
Those moves are expected to move the court to the right, but former U.S. Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson said the court's transition won't be immediately apparent.
"It's going to make a lot of difference in ways we can't appreciate now, and probably won't appreciate for years," Olson said.
The new court's immediate task will be tackling a docket for the next term "that reflects almost all the hot-button constitutional issues," said lawyer Teresa Wynn Roseborough of the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy.
The court is expected to decide its first major abortion case in five years, involving New Hampshire's requirement that teenagers give their parents 48 hours' notice before ending a pregnancy. And after that, either this term or next, the justices are likely to consider whether the federal ban on late-term abortions is constitutional.
The question in both cases is likely to be whether those laws are what O'Connor has called "undue burdens" to abortion. That has been the standard used to judge such laws, and a more conservative court might want to revise it, said Lucinda M. Finley, a pro-choice law professor and vice provost for faculty affairs at UB.
For one thing, none of the pending cases directly challenges Roe v. Wade. For another, given that a majority of the court will still favor Roe even if an abortion opponent is confirmed as O'Connor's successor, at least one more abortion-rights justice would have to retire for Roe to be overturned anytime soon, said lawyer Walter M. Weber of the conservative American Center for Law & Justice.
Topping the court's list of business-related issues is an Ohio case that could topple the efforts of states -- including New York to attract new jobs. The court will decide whether the State of Ohio unconstitutionally interfered with interstate commerce by offering DaimlerChrysler Corp. tax incentives to build a Jeep plant in Toledo.
"That's huge," Albert said. "Every state does that sort of thing."
Similarly, every state regulates campaign finance. And in a series of cases this year, the court will spell out how far the states and the federal government can go in doing so.
In a Vermont case, the high court could overturn Buckley v. Valeo, the 1976 decision that bars governments from setting limits on campaign spending. And the court will also consider whether the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law went too far in limiting spending by special-interest groups.
"There's an increasingly loud drumbeat on the court suggesting the whole analytical structure of the Buckley decision needs to be re-examined," said James A. Gardner, a UB law professor.
Other big cases on the agenda for the coming term touch on culture-war battles that are likely to be fought on a much larger scale at the court in the years to come.
The court will consider the constitutionality of a law that withholds federal funds from law schools that bar military recruiters from campus. Many schools have done that because the American Association of Law Schools requires them to say they do not discriminate against homosexuals, while the military maintains a ban on open homosexuality.
In an Oregon case, the justices will decide whether the federal government can ban drugs that physicians prescribe under the state's law allowing physician-assisted suicide.
Court-watchers said those cases offer a preview of what is likely to be a vast and controversial docket facing the Roberts court in the coming decades.
At some point, for instance, the Massachusetts court decision allowing gay marriage is expected to reach the high court.
Most likely, a gay couple from Massachusetts will move to another state and want to see the marriage recognized. That could force the high court to resolve what might be seen as a conflict between the Defense of Marriage Act, a federal law allowing states not to recognize gay marriages from other states, and a constitutional provision requiring states to honor out-of-state marriages.
Similarly, this year's assisted-suicide case could be the first of several life-and-death issues that the Roberts court will confront.
In fact, reproductive cloning and genetic selection possibilities at the far frontier of modern medicine could eventually put the Roberts court in a position of even defining life itself.
"There could be a lot of brave-new-world, science-fiction-like things coming up," Weber said.
Similarly, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., expects technology and the right to privacy to clash before the high court.
"Technology allows you to snoop in people's lives in unprecedented ways," said Schumer, a leader in congressional efforts to protect personal information. "What are the boundaries?"
Meanwhile, experts said the court is expected to continue its case-by-case re-evaluation of the death penalty, its slow refinement of the role of religion in public spaces, and its oversight of the war on terrorism.
Finley expects the case of Jose Padilla, a suspected terrorist imprisoned without charges for more than three years, to eventually reach the high court. At issue will be whether the president can detain a U.S. citizen indefinitely without criminal charges. "That could be one of the most important cases of all time," Finley said.
Given that Roberts is only 50, experts said, he is likely to play a key role in several such cases.
"For many years to come, long after many of us have left public service, said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., "the Roberts court will be deliberating on some of the most difficult and fundamental questions of U.S. law."e-mail: email@example.com