A tourist outside the Supreme Court's public cafeteria once handed a tall, gray-haired man a camera and asked him to snap his family's picture. The gentleman obliged without a word, and the tourists went on their way, totally unaware that the man was Justice Byron R. White.
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Former Justice John Paul Stevens, who spent nearly 35 years on the court before retiring last year at age 90, told C-SPAN that he was never recognized outside the courtroom — except once. That was in a video store in Florida, and the shop's owner had recently been admitted to the bar.
Nine relative unknowns
As the nation's highest court begins its 2011-2012 term today, only 15 percent of Americans can name the chief justice — John G. Roberts Jr., who is beginning his seventh term. Twice as many Americans know Randy Jackson is a judge on American Idol , according to a survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.
In the last six years, the Roberts court has shown itself to be more conservative than any in decades, more pro-business and highly protective of free speech, scholars say.
The justices may seem distant, but their reach is as close as your TV, literally. One of the 80 or so cases the court will hear this term centers on indecent speech on television. The court may finally decide in Federal Communications Commission v. Fox Television whether a woman's bare bottom and fleeting "F-bombs" are acceptable on broadcast television when children might be watching. Any case combining scenes from NYPD Blue and celebrities using bad language is bound to garner media attention, but the court is poised to consider other issues with far greater impact on American life.