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Questions surround start of new Supreme Court term

How will Sonia Sotomayor vote? Is John Paul Stevens soon to retire? Will John Roberts and Samuel Alito be more unabashedly conservative? The term begins Monday.

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Order in the court: President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden (flanking Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor) stand with the nine justices of the United States Supreme Court and recently retired Associate Justice David Souter (far right).

Steve Petteway / Collection of the Supreme Court / AP

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Transition is the word that perhaps best describes the US Supreme Court's 2009-10 term set to begin Monday.

The coming year offers an opportunity for court watchers to more clearly define the character of the emerging Roberts Court during Chief Justice John Roberts's fifth term on the bench. And it presents a chance far superior to the wishy-washy Senate confirmation hearings to finally learn something of the real Sonia Sotomayor, the high court's newest justice.

Will she be a liberal stalwart or a sometimes ally to the conservatives? If so, in which cases?

The term already includes potential blockbuster cases examining the applicability of Second Amendment gun rights to state and local governments, campaign-finance regulations, life sentences for juveniles, and whether Congress violated the separation of powers when it created an independent accounting oversight board.

The court's options will reveal more than just legal winners and losers. How these disputes are analyzed and decided by the justices will offer legal scholars important clues about the evolving dynamics within the nation's highest court.

In addition to the arrival of a new justice, Justice John Paul Stevens's decision to hire only one law clerk (instead of the usual four) for the 2010-11 term has sparked speculation that he intends to leave the court in June.

Among key trends to watch will be whether Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito decide to put an unabashedly conservative stamp on the high court by joining their conservative colleagues to boldly overturn liberal legal precedents despite earlier pledges of a preference for judicial minimalism.

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