Four weeks. Four major legal rulings. What the Supreme Court decides by the end of June could fundamentally change lives and legacies on a range of politically explosive issues.
The justices will meet in at least five public sessions to release opinions in its remaining 30 cases, among them some the most strongly-contested legal and social issues they have confronted in decades:
-- Same-sex marriage: A pair of appeals testing whether gays and lesbian couples have a fundamental constitutional right to wed.
-- Affirmative action: May race continue to be used as a factor in college admissions, to achieve classroom diversity?
-- Voting rights: The future of the Voting Rights Act, and continued federal oversight of elections in states with a past history of discrimination.
-- Gene patents: Can "products of nature" like isolated parts of the human genome be held as the exclusive intellectual property of individuals and companies, through government-issued patents?
"It's almost unimaginable the number of things that the Supreme Court is going to decide that will affect all Americans in the next month," said Thomas Goldstein, a top Washington attorney and publisher of SCOTUSblog.com.
"What would surprise me this term is if the court upheld use of affirmative action or the (enforcement tool behind the) Voting Rights Act. And I think it would be a big surprise if the court did anything radical when it came to same-sex marriage -- either saying there was a constitutional right to it, or rejecting that claim outright and forever. I think that's something they're going to try and tread that middle ground path."
The court will not say precisely when these hot-button opinions will be released, but the last scheduled public session of the term is set for June 24. Depending on how long it takes the justices to finish up, that deadline could easily slip a few days.
Oral arguments have ended for the term, and the justices have already secretly voted on these and about two dozen other pending cases. Individual justices have been assigned to write the one or more opinions, as well as separate dissents. Only they and their law clerks know how this will end.
And no one is talking-- an unbroken tradition of discretion rare in leak-loving Washington.
"At the Supreme Court, those who know, don't talk. And those who talk, don't know," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, echoing similar comments from her colleagues.
The high court holds fast to an unofficial but self-imposed deadline to have all draft opinions finished by June 1. They are circulated to colleagues, and subsequent dissents and concurrencies must be submitted by June 15. Nothing is final until the decision is released to the public. Votes can and do change at the last minute.
The last four weeks beginning Tuesday will be the busiest, most chaotic time. Justices and their law clerks are holed up in chambers, furiously working to frame and craft the final opinions, making sure every fact, every footnote, every legal theory is fully checked and articulated.
Ginsburg calls it the "flood season." She and her eight colleagues know they are writing their legacies with these four issues. The outcome may be disputed, but the constitutional reasoning -- at least in the justice's own minds -- must be sound.
"Getting themselves organized, identifying the different majorities, getting opinions written and circulated in dissents and concurrencies will really test their capabilities in the final days," Goldstein said.
The opinion-writing exercise is little-known, and the court likes it that way. Consistently predicting the outcome is a time-honored Washington parlor game, but rarely successful.
There has been particularly intense focus on the same-sex marriage cases. Thousands of activists rallied at the court when the case was argued in March. At issue:
-- Federal benefits. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is a 1996 law that says for federal purposes, marriage is defined as only between one man and one woman. That means federal tax, Social Security, pension, and bankruptcy benefits, family medical leave protections -- and a thousand more such provisions -- do not apply to gay and lesbian couples, such as Edie Windsor. The 84-year-old New York woman is the key plaintiff in the DOMA fight. She was forced to pay more than $363,000 in extra estate taxes when her longtime spouse, Thea Spyer, died.
-- State referendums. The California high court had earlier concluded same-sex marriage was legal, but the 2008 voter-approved Proposition 8 abolished it. The high court is being asked to establish same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, but could also decide a more narrow question: whether a state can revoke that right through referendum once it has already been recognized.