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Notes on O'Connor, Mohammed and falling marble

By Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

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Justice Sandra Day O'Connor ended her 25-year career on the Supreme Court last week.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sandra Day O'Connor may be officially retired from the Supreme Court, but do not expect her to ride off into the Arizona sunset. The former justice is keeping a hectic schedule.

O'Connor ended her 25-year career on the high court last week, after attending the private swearing-in of her successor, Samuel Alito.

O'Connor, 75, offered no farewell speech or public statement, and no accolades came from her colleagues.

After the swearing-in she left immediately for her home state, where the following day she began a two-week teaching job at the University of Arizona Law School in Tucson. The topic: the Supreme Court, of course.

Sources close to O'Connor said she did not want any fuss over her departure, and was eager to get on with her life.

"The last thing Justice O'Connor wanted was a long goodbye," said one colleague, who asked not to be identified. "She has too much toughness and dignity to let things outside her control affect her."

But O'Connor will not sever her ties with the court, maintaining a small office in the building, a privilege for retired justices. It will be her base when she travels to Washington, and she will also have a law clerk at her disposal. Her main home will be in the Phoenix area.

In recent weeks, O'Connor was the grand marshal at the Rose Bowl Parade, attended the annual Gridiron Dinner in Washington and swore in new U.S. citizens.

O'Connor also will go on the lucrative speaking circuit, and may write another book.

A change in the seating chart

Call it the Supreme Court Shuffle. The arrival of new Justice Samuel Alito means a change in the seating arrangements on the high court's bench.

The nine justices are arranged by seniority when sitting for oral arguments and other public sessions. The chief justice sits in the middle and the senior associate justices are on either side of him. They spread out by length of tenure, putting Alito on the far end.

So, from left to right, as one watches from the courtroom, the new lineup is: Justices Stephen Breyer, Clarence Thomas, Anthony Kennedy, John Paul Stevens, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justices Antonin Scalia, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Alito.

Only Roberts and Stevens, the senior associate justice who has been on the bench since 1975, are in the same seats there were in before Justice Sandra Day O'Connor stepped down.

For many tourists and other visitors, including some journalists, telling the justices apart can prove difficult. There are no name plates, the jurists do not introduce themselves at oral arguments, and many seats in the courtroom are obstructed by pillars.

A bygone Mohammed controversy

The recent controversy over the cartoon depiction in European newspapers of the Prophet Mohammed recalls a similar, but nonviolent, reaction directed at the Supreme Court nearly a decade ago.

Forty feet up on the walls of the courtroom are a series of friezes -- carved figures of marble representing historical lawmakers. Sharing space with such men as Justinian and Charlemagne is the founder of Islam, holding a copy of the Quran.

In 1997, Muslim-American groups objected to Mohammed's depiction, and asked that it be removed, claiming it was a form of sacrilege.

The court refused, with then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist writing that the depiction "was intended only to recognize him, among many other lawgivers, as an important figure in the history of law; it is not intended as a form of idol worship."

The court, however, did update tourist brochures and official publications to acknowledge the concerns.

Islamic religious law is interpreted to forbid any pictures of Mohammed because it could lead to idolatry and encourage believers to pray to someone other than Allah.

Many Muslims around the world were outraged when a Danish newspaper recently published 12 caricatures of the prophet, one wearing a bomb in his turban, which were reprinted in other European media. That sparked violent protests in Asia and Europe, and prompted Iran to stop all trade with Denmark.

Decorative fallout

Speaking of Supreme Court building, recent visitors cannot help but notice a huge net running across the front exterior. The Architect of the Capitol, which helps maintain the court, says it is a protective measure, as engineers continue a thorough inspection of the ornate decorative work.

A chunk of marble from the dentil molding on the west pediment fell suddenly November 28, while visitors were waiting to attend oral arguments.

No one was hurt as the piece fell about 100 feet onto the steps below.

At the time, about three dozen people were lined up outside the building, approximately 15 feet from where the white marble -- about 12 inches by 10 inches by 10 inches in size -- fell.

The front entrance of the court was closed for weeks as a precaution, but was recently reopened with the net in place. There is no indication when the inspections will be completed and the netting removed.

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