Part Three: Advancing to a Decision
In the first part of our three-part series, we looked at the Bench and the Bar. In our second part, we discussed filing in the Supreme Court. Finally, we look at how the Court arrives at a decision.
A. Oral Argument
Oral argument is conducted from October through April each Term. A two-week session is held each month with arguments scheduled on Monday through Wednesday of each week. Unless directed otherwise, each side is allotted one-half hour of time.
Oral argument can play a crucial role in the outcome of a case. It represents counsel’s chance to paint a broad picture for the Court and to demonstrate the potential impact of a decision. Justice Ginsburg describes it as “an opportunity to face the decision-makers; to try to answer the questions that trouble judges.”
Following oral argument, the Justices hold a private conference during which they vote on how to decide a particular case. The senior justice in the majority (that is, either the Chief Justice or, if he is not in the majority, the justice who has been on the Court the longest) decides who will write the majority opinion; if there is a dissent — an opinion held by a minority of Justices that a different decision should have been reached — then the senior dissenting Justice decides who will write the lead dissent to the opinion.
The assigned Justices then draft opinions outlining their reasoning in reaching their decision. The amount of time taken to write an opinion depends on several factors: how divided the Justices are, which Justice is writing the opinion, and the time of year. The Court will announce its decision in open court. There, the Court hands down (issues) an opinion in which it either reverses the decision below, or affirms its findings.
Opinions of the Supreme Court are widely reported and readily available in printed reporters, loose-leaf services, online databases, and on the internet. Visit Information about Opinions and Where to Obtain Supreme Court Opinions on the Court’s website.
The Supreme Court issues orders related to the grant or denial of certiorari, stays, motions in pending cases, mandamus, rehearings, permission to file amicus briefs, and attorney discipline. The Court’s orders are listed on its website, here.
Annual Supreme Court Terms commence, by statute, on the first Monday each October. Typically, a Term concludes shortly after the Court’s last scheduled distribution date in June or July (which occurred on June 19th this term). After all final orders have been released (which occurred this morning), the Chief Justice formally announces the Court’s adjournment and the beginning of its summer recess.
While the work of the Court continues throughout the summer, most of the Justices use recess to vacation, teach, and write. The previous Term’s law clerks train incoming clerks how to write cert. pool memos and deal with last-minute petitions for stay of execution.
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