By Tony Mauro, USA TODAY
September 30. 2012 - Monday, it is the Supreme Court's turn to show whether it, like the other two branches of government, has been torn apart by Washington's climate of contentiousness.
This summer, a bitterly divided Congress accomplished little and went home, while the candidates for president have escalated their animosity in rhetoric and advertising.
As the Supreme Court returns from its summer recess on the traditional first Monday of October, the question on many minds will be whether the usually collegial nine justices have been bitten by the same bilious bug.
The last most of us heard from the court was in late June, when it issued its landmark decision upholding most of the sweeping health care reforms contained in the Affordable Care Act. Soon after, some extraordinary but credible leaks emerged from the court asserting that conservative justices were furious at Chief Justice John Roberts for changing his mind during deliberations and providing the crucial vote to declare the law constitutional.
Roberts switched sides, the theory goes, to keep the court from becoming a political football. Striking down the biggest piece of federal legislation in decades, he reportedly felt, would damage the court's reputation for judicial restraint. If that was Roberts' motive, it worked. A decision striking down the law might have kept the Supreme Court in the political cross hairs all summer. Instead, the court dropped off the radar.
Chances are good any animosities on the court have also faded through the summer. The justices' traditional three-month recess is controversial -- why do they get the summer off? -- but at a time like this, it serves a useful purpose. Justices scatter across the world to tour, and to teach: Roberts, for example, taught in Malta; Samuel Alito did the same in Florence. Getting far away from Washington can soothe the angriest of rivalries.
There is also a strong incentive on the court to set aside disagreements about past cases and forge ahead. Justices have life tenure, which means years or decades of togetherness with their colleagues, not fun if grudges linger. Famous feuds have broken out on the court in the past, but for the last several decades, remarkably, justices of all stripes have largely gotten along.
Justices who have been in the public eye this summer have denied the existence of any rift with Roberts. "Nothing like that," Justice Antonin Scalia told CNN during one stop on his latest book tour.
But if animosity remains, the coming term will provide ample opportunities for the justices to show it. On Oct. 10, in a case from the University of Texas, the court will take up affirmative action, an issue that has divided the panel for decades. In 2003, the last time the court upheld giving minorities a boost in university admissions, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said the compelling need for diversity could justify affirmative action for 25 years more. With O'Connor retired, the justices might end such programs much sooner.
On the horizon are issues that could be even more divisive than affirmative action. As many as nine cases involving same-sex marriage are on the court's doorstep, and the justices may not be able to avoid deciding at least some of them. Whether a majority of the court will agree with a growing segment of the public that the time for marriage equality has arrived is far from certain.
And in this election year, the court could also be called on to decide voting rights cases or disputes over the election itself, though one can only pray that there will be no sequel to the 2000 case of Bush v. Gore.
Many of these cases could be decided by 5-4 votes, but that won't necessarily mean angry rhetoric or personal feuds. By longstanding tradition, before each session the justices shake hands with one another. There is no reason to think that this morning, before they come to the bench for the first time this fall, the current justices won't do the same.