WASHINGTON — It's the biggest secret in a city known for not keeping them.

The nine Supreme Court justices and more than three dozen other people have kept quiet for more than two months about how the high court is going to rule on the constitutionality of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

This is information that could move markets, turn economies and greatly affect this fall's national elections, including the presidential contest between Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But unlike the Congress and the executive branch, which seem to leak information willy-nilly, the Supreme Court, from the chief justice down to the lowliest clerk, appears to truly value silence when it comes to upcoming court opinions, big and small.

No one talks, and that's the way they like it.

Contrast this with the rest of the government, which couldn't keep secret President Barack Obama's direct role in supervising an unprecedented U.S. cyberattack on Iran's nuclear facilities or the existence of a double agent inside al-Qaida's Yemen branch who tipped the U.S. to a new design for a bomb to put on a jetliner.

As Republicans air their suspicion that the leaks might be deliberate to enhance the Obama administration's stature, Attorney General Eric Holder has appointed two U.S. attorneys to investigate those two disclosures and probably additional recent national security leaks. Because far more people, of necessity, know about such secret national security operations, those investigators must examine hundreds, even thousands, of federal workers who might have known at least a chunk of the guarded information.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the law in the upcoming week or so. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, speaking to a lawyers' convention June 15, noted a steady stream of "rumors and fifth-hand accounts" in the media about what the high court was likely to do.

"My favorite among the press pieces wisely observed: `At the Supreme Court ... those who know don't talk, and those who talk don't know,'" she said.

The justices, of course, know, having officially voted on the results the same week they heard arguments. But they are not the only ones in the loop: Each of the nine justices has four clerks who know not only how their justice voted but also how the other justices stand because these clerks help research and craft the majority opinions and dissents that are circulated for justices to sign if they agree.

In addition these 45 people surely in the know, there are an assorted number of secretaries, aides, security guards, janitors, support staff and family members keenly attuned to the inner workings of the Supreme Court's upper floors where the justices keep their chambers. At the last moment possible, printers who prepare the paper opinions to be handed out will know.

If any of these people also know anything about how the case is going to come out, they're not talking.

Unlike the president, who needs to be re-elected every four years and needs positive publicity to help, the justices have lifetime appointments and don't need favorable publicity to keep their jobs. Unlike the other constitutional branches, the justices rarely appear on television and don't even allow cameras inside their main workplace, the Supreme Court.

But that silence trickles down even beyond the justices.

Those 36 clerks, who have inside knowledge of the court's deliberations, are just as mum as their bosses despite growing up in the Internet age of bloggers, camera-phones, social media and instantly free-flowing information.

Clerks are warned from day one not to reveal anything about their work, said lawyer Stephen Miller, who clerked for Justice Antonin Scalia.

Miller remembered Chief Justice William Rehnquist warning all of the clerks in his year of the perils of leaking information from the court. "Leaks were unacceptable," Miller remembers the chief justice sternly telling all of them.

In addition to losing their job, one of the most highly sought positions for up-and-coming lawyers in the nation because it usually leads to a six-figure salary upon completion, any clerk caught revealing information would immediately be ostracized in the legal profession, Miller said. No law firm would be willing to take a chance on a lawyer who talks or leaks information to outsiders without permission.

If the leaking clerk isn't caught, the entire class would have that stigma, leading to strong peer pressure to stay silent, he said.

"So what's in it for a clerk to leak?" Miller said.

The court's mystique and reputation for silence means there have been no special warnings from the justices for employees not to spill the beans on the health care decision. It's not that the health care decision isn't important. It's that clerks, secretaries, aides, janitors, and all of the other staff know they are not supposed to talk about anything the court does until the official announcement.

That doesn't mean that the court's always been perfect at withholding information until its formal release. For example, the court inadvertently posted opinions and orders on its website about a half hour too soon in December.

The last apparent leak occurred more than 30 years ago when Tim O'Brien, then a reporter for ABC News, informed viewers that the court planned to issue a particular opinion the following day. Chief Justice Warren Burger accused an employee in the printing shop of tipping O'Brien and had the employee transferred to a different job.

Miller noted that all the lampposts at the entrances and exits of the Supreme Court building are supported by turtle sculptures, which can also be found elsewhere in the building. It's an apt symbol for the court.

"They like information to move slowly and deliberately," Miller said.

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Online:

Supreme Court: http://www.supremecourt.gov/docket/PPAACA.aspx

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  • 1912

    Former President Theodore Roosevelt champions national health insurance as he unsuccessfully tries to ride his progressive Bull Moose Party back to the White House. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

  • 1935

    President Franklin D. Roosevelt favors creating national health insurance amid the Great Depression but decides to push for Social Security first. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1942

    Roosevelt establishes wage and price controls during World War II. Businesses can't attract workers with higher pay so they compete through added benefits, including health insurance, which grows into a workplace perk. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

  • 1945

    President Harry Truman calls on Congress to create a national insurance program for those who pay voluntary fees. The American Medical Association denounces the idea as "socialized medicine" and it goes nowhere. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1960

    John F. Kennedy makes health care a major campaign issue but as president can't get a plan for the elderly through Congress. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1965

    President Lyndon B. Johnson's legendary arm-twisting and a Congress dominated by his fellow Democrats lead to creation of two landmark government health programs: Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for the poor. (AFP/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1974

    President Richard Nixon wants to require employers to cover their workers and create federal subsidies to help everyone else buy private insurance. The Watergate scandal intervenes. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

  • 1976

    President Jimmy Carter pushes a mandatory national health plan, but economic recession helps push it aside. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)

  • 1986

    President Ronald Reagan signs COBRA, a requirement that employers let former workers stay on the company health plan for 18 months after leaving a job, with workers bearing the cost. (MIKE SARGENT/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1988

    Congress expands Medicare by adding a prescription drug benefit and catastrophic care coverage. It doesn't last long. Barraged by protests from older Americans upset about paying a tax to finance the additional coverage, Congress repeals the law the next year. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1993

    President Bill Clinton puts first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in charge of developing what becomes a 1,300-page plan for universal coverage. It requires businesses to cover their workers and mandates that everyone have health insurance. The plan meets Republican opposition, divides Democrats and comes under a firestorm of lobbying from businesses and the health care industry. It dies in the Senate. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 1997

    Clinton signs bipartisan legislation creating a state-federal program to provide coverage for millions of children in families of modest means whose incomes are too high to qualify for Medicaid. (JAMAL A. WILSON/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2003

    President George W. Bush persuades Congress to add prescription drug coverage to Medicare in a major expansion of the program for older people. (STEPHEN JAFFE/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2008

    Hillary Rodham Clinton promotes a sweeping health care plan in her bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. She loses to Obama, who has a less comprehensive plan. (PAUL RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

  • 2009

    President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress spend an intense year ironing out legislation to require most companies to cover their workers; mandate that everyone have coverage or pay a fine; require insurance companies to accept all comers, regardless of any pre-existing conditions; and assist people who can't afford insurance. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

  • 2010

    With no Republican support, Congress passes the measure, designed to extend health care coverage to more than 30 million uninsured people. Republican opponents scorned the law as "Obamacare." (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

  • 2012

    On a campaign tour in the Midwest, Obama himself embraces the term "Obamacare" and says the law shows "I do care." (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)