WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court began a new era Monday with three women serving together for the first time, Justice 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, Justice Kagan left the courtroom while the other justices remained to hear a case in which she will take no part. She 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.
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.
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.
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 Justice Kagan, while Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who joined in 1993, sat midway between Justice Kagan and Chief Justice Roberts, who occupies the center chair.
Justice John Paul Stevens’ retirement after 34 years led to Justice Kagan’s appointment.
The new court has four New Yorkers, Justice Antonin Scalia and the three women. All nine justices got their law degrees from Ivy League schools, and all but Justice Kagan previously served as federal appeals court judges.
For the first time ever, there are no Protestants among the justices — six Catholics and three Jews.
The substitution of the liberal-leaning Justice Kagan for the like-minded Justice 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. Justice Kennedy sides more often with the conservatives.
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, Justice 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.
Justice 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. Chief Justice Roberts suggested that some of the arguments on both sides would lead to absurd results.