On June 23, 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a New York law that placed severe restrictions on carrying a handgun in public. It was a welcome decision as the court continues to issue opinions until its term expires in the next week or two.
But people were kept waiting for the exact date of the ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which may overturn Roe v. wade.
The court is announcing which days it will publish rulings and only plans to announce more on June 24. No one outside the court knows when the main rulings will be published, or whether the court may decide to release more opinions in early July.
There is a reason the court remains so secretive, and why its decision to have an abortion is likely to be one of the last before the court decides for the summer. We asked constitutional scholar and Supreme Court expert Stephanie Lindqvist to explain the reason behind the court’s scrutiny of its work.
Does research support the idea that the court saves the most high-profile decisions for last?
Very eminent scholars and judges have done a very thorough study that has tested the assumption that the most important decisions of the court are made at the end of the term. They measured importance based on the extent to which the New York Times covered the case. And their research confirmed that it is absolutely true that the most important decisions that the court makes, for example, setting aside a precedent, are not announced until the end of the term.
One reason may be that the court is especially attentive to the content of these decisions. And because they might require more negotiation on the content of the opinion itself, or more work on writing disagreements and coincidences.
Is it clear why they publish these important decisions at the end of the term?
There was some speculation that they want to wait before posting their opinion before leaving town. Since they are social creatures like the rest of us, some have suggested that they do not want to discuss these cases in their social circles. But I think it’s most likely a combination of workload and the fact that these things take longer. Judges also understand the public impact these cases can have. But, ultimately, it is not entirely clear why they do this.
The court is known for its secrecy. What is the point of the court being so silent about its decisions?
The court is an institution that, over time, very carefully preserves its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
The late Judge Antonin Scalia demanded that his clerks sign an agreement on the confidentiality of court proceedings. He told them that if they broke this secrecy, he would do everything in his power to undermine their future careers.
The Court is very careful to ensure that its opinion is final. Revealing any internal and potentially divisive dynamics associated with the court’s decision-making process can undermine the strength and validity of the Supreme Court’s decision.
Why don’t they even say when a specific decision will be announced?
Frankly, I think it’s probably hard for them to predict the exact timing of decisions. Remember that the final decisions of the court are the result of negotiations between individual judges. And until they’re ready, they can’t necessarily say, “This is the day we’re going to sign,” especially at the end of the term when many of these very important decisions are announced.
Negotiations and proofreading until the last minute are possible. Judges no doubt understand that these very important decisions will end up in law school textbooks. They will be carefully read by journalists. Judges are a highly professional group of people.
So they are concerned about every opinion they give. But with these opinions coming out at the end of the semester, those are usually the most important decisions they make – they care even more about accuracy in every sentence they write.