By Joan Biskupic

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - As he chatted with law clerks in his chambers, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas laughed so hard he looked as though he might tumble from his chair.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sorted through the cabinet of lacy collars she wears over her black robe for the one she dons when about to announce a majority opinion. Justice Stephen Breyer searched his shelves of antique books for just the right volume to make a point. And Chief Justice John Roberts savored a bowl of soup while lunching with his clerks in a book-lined study.

These are some of the moments captured by Reuters since it began last October to chronicle a single nine-month term of America's highest court. The session is set to close by the end of June, with rulings still awaited on abortion rights, race-based university admissions and President Barack Obama's immigration plan.

Laboring in a white marble building insulated from the sounds of any protesters outside, the Supreme Court clings to its own steady rhythms regardless of the politics of the day and changes in its own ranks. That is how it has been for the 2015-16 term, marked by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. A nine-member court suddenly became an eight-member bench.

Ideologically divided between four conservatives and four liberals, the justices began opting for narrow decisions that minimized differences.

In some instances, they returned disputes to lower courts for more proceedings, in effect deciding not to decide - or at least not to decide much - while shorthanded. Obama's nomination of federal appeals court judge Merrick Garland to succeed Scalia has stalled in the U.S. Senate. The Republican majority has vowed not to act on any nominee put forward by Obama, whose presidency ends in January.

Supreme Court rulings tend to be illustrated in news reports by photos of the marble-columned exterior or by nondescript head shots of individual justices in black robes. Rarely does the public see images of the elegant courtroom, the flower-filled inner courtyards, the chandeliered library, or the ceremonial conference rooms lined with portraits of the 16 chief justices who preceded John Roberts since the country's founding. Rarely does the public see the staff members who support the justices.

Reuters captured not just the court and lawyers who argue cases, but Clerk of the Court Scott Harris, who handles the thousands of petitions that reach the justices each year, of which they select only about 70 to hear, as well as the gardeners and elevator operators. This is an institution that hews to tradition, and its elevators are still operated by hand.

Reuters sought to avoid highlighting any single day or case. One day turned out to be more notable than others, however. That was Feb. 13, when Justice Scalia died while on a hunting trip in Texas. His death, and the loss of a crucial fifth conservative vote, changed everything, and the session now coming to a close offers a contrast between what might have been and what is.

The justices had been set to rule on disputes that would determine the power of unions, the reach of abortion rights, the future of racial university admissions, and the validity of Obama's executive action to shield millions of immigrants in the country illegally from deportation. The court seemed headed for a series of blockbuster rulings, likely favoring conservative results.

After Scalia's death, it became clear that with conservatives unable to dominate, a majority across ideological lines was readier to compromise. In this politically charged U.S. election year, the justices have largely drawn back from the national scene, sticking to familiar routines, closing ranks, and awaiting the day when they have a ninth again.

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(Reporting by Joan Biskupic; Editing by Will Dunham)