This year, like last year and many other years, has saved several of the most biggest and most influential decisions for near the end of the term.
The Supreme Court operates on a yearly term, that the Court describes as follows:
A Term of the Supreme Court begins, by statute, on the first Monday in October. Usually Court sessions continue until late June or early July. The Term is divided between “sittings,” when the Justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening “recesses,” when they consider the business before the Court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals.
After hearing the oral argument for a case, the Court usually deliberates for quite some time to consider the merits and decide who will write the opinion, and when necessary, concurring and dissenting opinions. Then it takes some time to actually write the opinions, circulate and edit drafts and finalize everything. Because this process takes months, the Court stops hearing new cases late in the term and in May and June only announces orders and opinions for cases it heard earlier in the term.
Last year, the Court waited until the last gasp of the term, June 28, to release the decision in the Affordable Care Act case. This term, the Court has several big decisions waiting for the last month of the term to be released.
Over the next four to five weeks, expect to hear decisions in possibly landmark cases regarding voter rights, affirmative action and marriage equality.
But why does the Supreme Court usually wait until the end of the term to decide these big issue cases?
Maybe the summer is the best time for controversial decisions to be released as to dull the anguish felt by those who disagree. Maybe because a late June decision doesn’t give Congress enough time to overreact in response before it takes off for the month of August. Maybe it’s because the Justices just want to be done for the term so they can go hunting together.
Really, I think it is because the most controversial decisions tend to be the hardest for the Court. Some like to argue that the Supreme Court is separate from and above politics and public opinion, but this isn’t really the case. The Court understands that if it fails to take these considerations into account, it can face harm to its legitimacy, which can undermine the enforcement of its rulings and cause a backlash. We saw a lot of this kind of thing in responses to Supreme Court decisions in the 20th century that banned segregated schools, struck down the death penalty (although that one was short lived), and nullified laws criminalizing abortion.
Opinions on controversial cases that draw public attention, like the marriage equality cases expected to be decided in late June, require even more precise and detailed research and strategy than most cases the Court hearts, which are already usually super complicated. Often Justices will change their minds and their votes upon seeing the draft decisions or dissenting opinions in cases. This extra careful consideration combined with the occasional judicial shuffling makes for cases that are hard to decide on time.