Inside the marble walls at the Supreme Court, the last days of June are called the "flood season," a frantic push to finish its work for the summer. The stakes are especially high this term, with four major rulings left to be announced.
What the justices decide in the next week or so could fundamentally change lives and legacies on a range of politically explosive issues.
The court will meet in at least two more public sessions to release opinions in its remaining 11 cases, among them:
-- 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.
"It's almost unimaginable the number of things that the Supreme Court is going to decide that will affect all Americans," 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 it could wrap its work by Thursday. Depending on how long it takes the justices to finish up, that internal deadline might slide into early July.
Oral arguments have ended for the term, and the justices have already secretly voted on the 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 -- continuing 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 concurrences 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.
Justices and their law clerks are holed up in chambers, working overtime to frame and craft the final opinions, making sure every fact, every footnote, every legal theory is fully checked and articulated.
The nine members know they are writing their legacies with these four issues. The outcome may be disputed, but the constitutional reasoning -- at least in the justices' 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.
-- Federal benefits. The Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, is a 1996 law saying that, 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. Edie Windsor, an 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 after the death of her longtime spouse, Thea Spyer.
-- State referendums. The California high court had earlier concluded same-sex marriage is legal, but the 2008 voter-approved Proposition 8 abolished it. The U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to establish same-sex marriage as a constitutional right, but it could instead decide a more narrow question: whether a state, through referendum, can revoke that right once it has been recognized.
The political, social, and legal stakes of this long-simmering debate will once again put the high court at the center of national attention, as it was in last summer's ruling upholding most of the massive health care reform law championed by President Barack Obama.
Nine states now allow gays and lesbians to legally wed: Connecticut, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington, as well as the District of Columbia. Delaware, Rhode Island and Minnesota recently passed laws that take effect this summer.
It is estimated about 120,000 legally married gay and lesbian couples live in the United States.
There is division within the ranks of both sides about whether the court will -- and should -- issue a sweeping ruling on the constitutional "equal protection" question. Some activists and politicians -- even some justices themselves -- think the elected branches may be in a better position to drive the same-sex marriage issue, not the courts.