WASHINGTON -- The Supreme Court opens its term tomorrow with a young new leader, a veteran justice eager to retire, and a calendar packed with contentious issues such as abortion, assisted suicide, and capital punishment.
For the first time in 33 years, William H. Rehnquist will not be on the court. The 80-year-old chief justice died Sept. 3. Every day since, the flags in front of the court have flown at half-staff.
The Rehnquist court becomes the Roberts court after a brief tradition-rich ceremony for John G. Roberts Jr., who learned about the inner workings of the place a quarter-century ago while clerking for Rehnquist.
Roberts, 50, will take a ceremonial oath as President Bush and the eight justices watch, then Roberts will pose for pictures on the steps of the court building.
The job presents immediate challenges.
For one, there are unanswered questions about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's departure. She announced July 1 that she would be stepping down.
Roberts was to replace her, but Bush shifted Roberts into the chief justice opening after Rehnquist died. The president has not named a successor to O'Connor and was spending part of this weekend at Camp David considering that choice.
O'Connor, 75, delayed her retirement following a personal appeal from the president. Once her replacement is named, the confirmation could take as little as two months, or it could last many more if the nomination is contested by Senate Democrats.
O'Connor, a moderate who often casts the critical fifth vote on the nine-member court, will hear cases and vote during closed-door sessions after oral arguments. Rulings take months to prepare, and if she leaves the court before they are done, the votes would not count.
''The court will be in an extremely unsettled and uncertain situation until Justice O'Connor's successor is confirmed and seated," Supreme Court historian David Garrow said. ''No one, including the justices themselves, will know for sure whether the nine justices who hear a case will be the same nine who will decide it."
It will not take long for the court to delve into important social issues.
On Wednesday, the court is to hear a challenge to Oregon's one-of-a-kind law that allows doctors to help terminally ill patients die more quickly.
In November, justices will review a state abortion law. In December comes an appeal that involves gay rights, as part of a protest against the Pentagon's ''Don't ask, don't tell" policy.
''This will be a real watershed year," said Paul Schiff Berman, a law professor at the University of Connecticut.
There are five death penalty cases and two appeals challenging spending limits on political candidates and advocacy groups.
In a test of states rights, justices will consider whether states and counties can be sued for not accommodating disabled prisoners, and a religion case will focus on the constitutional rights of people who want to use hallucinogenic tea as part of their worship.
The court's workload ''touches on all these hot-button issues. It will be a good weather vane for where the court is going," said Martin Flaherty, a professor at Fordham Law School.
Roberts is expected to vote similarly to Rehnquist, although it is unclear whether he will go as far as Rehnquist in supporting a reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that established a woman's right to abortion.
The abortion case before the court this term involves New Hampshire's parental notification law. The case does not pose a threat to Roe, but it gives the court a chance to make it more difficult to contest restrictions on the procedure.
Whoever replaces O'Connor could make the court more conservative. The White House delayed a pick until after Roberts's confirmation. An announcement is possible anytime.