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Drama to shadow high court's last day

Possible retirement, major case decisions await justices today

WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court will end its session today with high drama: an expected retirement, a ruling on the constitutionality of government Ten Commandments displays, and decisions in several major cases.

Traditionally, there is an air of suspense at the justices' last meeting before breaking for three months. They usually wait until then to resolve blockbuster cases, typically in split decisions.

Added to that is the expectation that Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist is presiding for the last time. Rehnquist has thyroid cancer, and many court observers believe his retirement is imminent.

''There's enormous drama and anticipation. Is he going to announce his resignation? Are we going to spend this summer in a confirmation fight?" said Erwin Chemerinsky, professor of law at Duke University.

Long lines have formed several hours before the court's recent sessions so that people could get a seat in the packed courtroom.

''It's a big day. History being made, that's a lot of what it's about," said Maureen Mahoney, a Washington lawyer and former Rehnquist law clerk.

Among the cases the justices must resolve are two of the most-watched of the term: the Ten Commandments appeals from Texas and Kentucky and a case that will determine the liability of Internet file-sharing services for clients' illegal swapping of songs and movies.

Justices ruled 25 years ago that the Ten Commandments could not be displayed in public schools. Now, they will decide whether a granite monument on the grounds of the Texas Capitol and framed copies of commandments in two Kentucky courthouses are allowed.

Also today, justices are expected to announce if they will hear appeals from two journalists who may face jail time for refusing to reveal sources in the leak of an undercover CIA officer's identity.

Lawyers for Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times have asked the court to clarify protections reporters have in keeping sources confidential. The cases could not be heard until December.

Rulings also are awaited today in a Tennessee death penalty case and an appeal to decide police departments' liability for not enforcing restraining orders.

The Supreme Court term already has covered closely watched cases involving the execution of teenage killers, state bans on Internet orders from out-of-state wineries, and federal sentencing rules.

Overshadowing it all, however, has been Rehnquist's health and questions about the future of the court, which has not had a vacancy for 11 years.

''More people are paying attention to the court than they have in years, even though the docket has not been earthshaking," said Vikram Amar, professor of law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, and a former Supreme Court clerk. ''It changes the importance of this year in Supreme Court history."

In addition to Rehnquist, 80, older members of the court include Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, 75, and Justice John Paul Stevens, 85.

Rehnquist was absent from the bench for five months after disclosing in October that he had cancer. He speaks with difficulty because of a trachea tube inserted to help him breathe.

''One or two justices may announce their retirement on Monday, or none may," said Suzanna Sherry, professor of law at Vanderbilt University, who specializes in the Supreme Court.

Rehnquist could announce his decision at today's morning session, wait until later in the day after justices hold their last private meeting, or wait until later in the week, after crowds leave the court.

The final rulings of the term often come down to 5-to-4 votes. Sometimes, justices who dissent read objections from the bench.

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