<!-- IMAGE -->

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its annual term with much of the attention focused on the high court's newest member, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was confirmed by the Senate in August, is the first Hispanic justice on the court and only the third woman to serve as a Supreme Court justice.

Sotomayor's first term on the high court promises to be busy.

The court is scheduled to hear cases involving gun rights, free speech and whether juvenile offenders should be sentenced to life in prison without parole in criminal cases that do not involve murder.

Justice Sotomayor was nominated by President Barack Obama to replace retired Justice David Souter.  Souter often sided with the court's liberal faction, and Sotomayor is expected to largely follow in his footsteps.  But the ideological balance on the court that favors the five-member conservative majority is not expected to change.

Sotomayor talked about what kind of justice she hopes to be at her confirmation hearings in August.

"In the end I hope it [history] will say that I am a fair judge, that I was a caring person and that I lived my life serving my country," she said.

Sotomayor spent years as a federal judge before her Supreme Court appointment, and legal analysts expect her to be an active advocate in the court's oral and written debates.

Attorney Carter Phillips has argued numerous cases before the Supreme Court.  He spoke at a legal forum at William and Mary Law School in Virginia.

"She will, I am sure, be a relatively active participant in the court and will, almost certainly, express her views fairly forcefully," said Phillips.

The opening day of a Supreme Court term often draws a variety of protesters to the high court steps, and Monday was no different, though perhaps a bit more subdued than usual.

Lois Fischbeck of Maryland came to urge the court to ban capital punishment, even though the justices are not scheduled to take on a particular case this term that would deal with the issue directly.

"Because this is where the law can be changed by one decision of the nine judges and make us in unison with the majority of countries of the world who have already decided that killing is not right by the government," Fischbeck said.

A few steps away, a woman named Sandy from Oklahoma held aloft a sign protesting abortion.

The court is not expected to consider any direct challenge to abortion laws this term, but Sandy wants some of the Supreme Court justices who support abortion rights to retire.

"And then we need to replace them with people who honor the Constitution.  All men are created equal and that includes babies," she said.

One of the most closely watched cases this term will be heard early next year when the high court considers a challenge to gun control laws in the city of Chicago.

Last year the court ruled in a five-to-four decision that the 2nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individuals to own handguns in the District of Columbia, the nation's capital.

The high court is also expected to rule soon on whether long-standing restrictions on corporations and labor unions contributing to political candidates are constitutional.