Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor
Steve Petteway  /  AP
From left, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Elena Kagan in the Justices' Conference Room prior to Justice Kagan's Investiture Ceremony on Oct. 1, 2010.
updated 10/4/2010 9:09:09 AM ET 2010-10-04T13:09:09

The Supreme Court began a new era Monday with three women serving together for the first time, Elena Kagan taking her place at the end of the bench and quickly joining in the give-and-take.

In a scene that will repeat itself over the next few months, Kagan left the courtroom while the other justices remained to hear a case in which she will take no part.

Kagan has taken herself out of 24 pending cases, including the second of the two argued Monday, because of her work as the Obama administration's solicitor general prior to joining the court in August.

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Hundreds of appeals turned down
Opening its new term on the traditional first Monday in October, the court turned down hundreds of appeals, including one from the relatives of victims of the Sept. 11 attacks. They are seeking a proper burial for material taken from the World Trade Center site because it could contain the ashes of victims.

Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito
Dana Verkouteren  /  AP
This artist rendering shows the newest Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, right, during a hearing at the court in Washington, on Monday. Seated, from left are, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justices John Roberts, Justice Anthony Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Samuel Alito and Kagan.

The justices also refused to hear several criminal appeals, including one by John and Timothy Rigas, founders of former telecommunications giant Adelphia Communications. They wanted the court to overturn their fraud convictions in connection with Adelphia's collapse in 2002.

The court also rejected an appeal by reputed Ku Klux Klansman James Ford Seale of his conviction for killing two black men in rural Mississippi in 1964 and another appeal by Georgia death row inmate Jamie Ryan Weis, who said he had no lawyer for two years.

Makeup of the new court
At the court, moments after Marshal Pamela Talkin banged her gavel and commanded the audience's attention, Chief Justice John Roberts announced the start of the new term with little fanfare.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, beginning her second year on the court, sat at the opposite end of the bench from Kagan, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined in 1993, sat midway between Kagan and Roberts, who occupies the center chair.

Interactive: Kagan confirmation

John Paul Stevens' retirement after 34 years led to Kagan's appointment.

The new court has four New Yorkers, Antonin Scalia and the three women. All nine justices got their law degrees from Ivy League schools, and all but Kagan previously served as federal appeals court judges.

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For the first time ever, there are no Protestants among the justices — six Catholics and three Jews.

The substitution of the liberal-leaning Kagan for the like-minded Stevens is not expected to make a difference in the ideologically tinged cases in which four conservatives face off against four liberals with Justice Anthony Kennedy the decisive vote. Kennedy sides more often with the conservatives.

Kagan speaks up during first case of term
But none of that matters when the court hears cases like the first one of its new term, a bankruptcy dispute with no evident ideological issue.

The justices were trying to figure out whether someone in bankruptcy who owned a car outright could still shield some income from creditors by claiming an allowance for a car payment. Like many seemingly easy issues that come to the court, this one had divided federal appeals courts.

At one point, Kagan wondered whether someone with a car that had 200,000 miles on it "and was going to break down in the next five years" could plausibly claim the allowance.

No, said Deanne Maynard, the lawyer for the credit card company that is trying to recoup some of the nearly $33,000 it is owed by Jason Ransom. Ransom's decision to claim a $471 monthly allowance for car payments though he owes no money on his 2004 Toyota Camry landed the case before the Supreme Court.

Kagan may have felt somewhat more comfortable than usual on a justice's first day in court because two of the lawyers in the case, Maynard and Justice Department lawyer Nicole Saharsky, worked for her when she was at the Justice Department.

The justices did not appear to lean one way or the other in the argument. Roberts suggested that some of the arguments on both sides would lead to absurd results.

Free speech cases loom large
Free speech cases top the U.S. Supreme Court's docket as it begins a new term.

The court will look at provocative anti-gay protests at military funerals and a California law banning the sale of violent video games to children. These cases worry free speech advocates, who fear the court could limit First Amendment freedoms. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees such basic rights as freedom of speech, religion and assembly.

Free speech vs. privacy

The funeral protest lawsuit, over signs praising American war deaths, "is one of those cases that tests our commitment to the First Amendment," said Steven Shapiro, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Another case involves a different aspect of the First Amendment, the government's relationship to religion. The justices will decide whether Arizona's income tax credit scholarship program, in essence, directs state money to religious schools in violation of the constitutional separation of church and state.

Under Chief Justice John Roberts, marking his fifth anniversary on the court, and with the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor by Justice Samuel Alito, the court has been more sympathetic to arguments that blur the line between government and religion, as long as one religion is not favored over another.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Supreme Court has deep bench of female justices

  1. Transcript of: Supreme Court has deep bench of female justices

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Back in this country in Washington today, the Supreme Court started out its new term this first Monday of October, the first outing for this new court with a big difference. It's the first ever with three woman justices. Our justice correspondent Pete Williams joins us from the court with a look at what's new and what's on the docket for this court season. Pete , good evening.

    PETE WILLIAMS reporting: Brian , for the second year in a row this is a court with a new lineup. We've had four new justices in the past five years. But Elena Kagan is getting off to something of a slow start. The court 's latest arrival, Elena Kagan , has jumped right into the job, taking the newcomers' traditional spot at the far end of the bench. In today's first case, she asked 10 questions, about average, then got up and left, sitting out the second argument as she'll do in roughly one third of this term's cases. That's to avoid any conflicts with cases she worked on as solicitor general at the Justice Department . Any time she sits one out, that means eight justices and the possibility of a four-four tie, which would leave the lower court ruling intact, changing nothing.

    Mr. GOLDSTEIN (Supreme Court Expert): It's very odd for a justice to miss one third of the cases. The truth of the matter, though, is that this too will pass, that she's going to be a justice for 25 or 30 years, and it's not what she's going to be remembered for because it's a temporary problem.

    P. WILLIAMS: While women now make up a third of the Supreme Court , about in line with courts nationwide, for the first time in history, none of the justices are Protestant . Six are Catholics , three are Jews . The author of a new biography of Justice William Brennan , who was Catholic , says it shows the country has come a long way in the five decades since Brennan's confirmation.

    Mr. STEPHEN WERMIEL (Professor, American University Law School): The main criticism and concern about him was whether you could have a Catholic on the court , because the assumption was that they would be loyal to the pope and not to the Constitution .

    P. WILLIAMS: As for who else these nine are, average age, 64. Seven have children, four are grandparents. Six of the justices were born in the East ; in fact, four of them are from New York City , from all its boroughs but Staten Island , and all graduated from Ivy league law schools, five of them from Harvard. Two are opera buffs, and three like their drama outdoors as die-hard baseball fans. On Wednesday, the court takes up one of this term's biggest cases, whether distasteful protests at military funerals amount to protected free speech.

    Brian: And, Pete , speaking of sports, as a great man once said, the business of sports actually found its way into the court today.

    B. WILLIAMS: It took 13 years, but the University of Southern California Trojans were victorious legally today in a long legal battle with the University of South Carolina Gamecocks . Now, here is the issue. The Trojans have long had a logo with an interlocking S and C. South Carolina wanted to register another logo that had a C and S interlocking, but a federal court said they looked too much alike and might confuse casual fans. And today the US Supreme Court declined to take that case, leaving the lower court ruling standing and leaving the SC Trojans logo undefeated. Brian :

    P. WILLIAMS: And hopefully the Constitution intact to live to see another day. Pete Williams at the court building in Washington . Pete ,

    B. WILLIAMS:

Interactive: U.S. Supreme Court: Major cases in the 2010-11 term

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