From the day the U.S. Supreme Court votes to hear a case to the day some nine months when we learn its decision, lots of high-level law happens. What are the daily procedures of the Supreme Court?
While the U.S. has a classic dual court system, the Supreme Court stands as the highest and only federal court created by the Constitution. All of the lower federal courts have been created over the years in one of the five “other” methods of changing the Constitution.
Without vacancies, the Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight Associate Justices, all appointed by the President of the United States with the approval of the Senate.
The Supreme Court’s Term or Calendar
The annual term of the Supreme Court runs begins on the first Monday in October and continues until late June or early July. During the term, the Court's calendar is divided between “sittings,” during which the Justices hear oral arguments on cases and release decisions and “recesses,” when the Justices deal with other business before the Court and write their opinions to be attached to the Court's decisions. The Court typically alternates between sittings and recesses about every two weeks throughout the term.
During the brief recess periods, the Justices review the arguments, consider upcoming cases, and work on their opinions. During every week of the term, the Justices also review more than 130 petitions asking the Court to review recent decisions of the state and lower federal courts to determine which, if any, should be granted full Supreme Court review with oral arguments by lawyers.
During sittings, public sessions start at 10 a.m. sharp and end at 3 p.m., with a one-hour recess for lunch starting at noon. Public sessions are held on Monday through Wednesday only. On Fridays of weeks during which oral arguments were heard, the Justices discuss the cases and vote on requests or “petitions for writ of certiorari” to hear new cases.
Before hearing oral arguments are made, the Court takes care of some procedural business. On Monday mornings, for example, the Court releases its Order List, a public report of all actions taken by the Court including a list of cases accepted and rejected for future consideration, and a list of lawyers newly approved to argue cases before the Court or “admitted to the Court Bar.”
The much-anticipated decisions and opinions of the Court are announced in public sessions held on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and on third Mondays during May and June. No arguments are heard when the Court sits to announced decisions.
While the Court begins its three-month recess in late June, the work of justice continues. During the summer recess, the Justices consider new petitions for Court review, consider and rule on hundreds of motions submitted by lawyers, and prepare for oral arguments scheduled for October.
Oral Arguments Before the Supreme Court
At precisely 10 a.m. on days the Supreme Court is in session, all present stand as the Marshal of the Court announces the entrance of the justices into the courtroom with the traditional chant: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
“Oyez” is a Middle English word meaning “hear ye.”
After having submitted countless legal briefs, oral arguments give lawyers representing clients in cases before the Supreme Court a chance to present their cases directly to the justices.
While many lawyers dream of arguing a case before the Supreme Court and wait years for a chance to do so, when the time finally comes, they are allowed only 30 minutes to present their case. The half-hour time limit is strictly enforced and answering questions asked by the justices does not extend the time limit. As a result, the lawyers, for whom brevity does not come naturally, work for months to hone their presentations to be concise and to anticipate questions.
While oral arguments are open to the public and the press, they are not televised. The Supreme Court has never allowed TV cameras in the courtroom during sessions. However, the Court does make audiotapes of oral arguments and opinions available to the public.
Prior to oral arguments, parties interested in, but not directly involved in the case will have submitted “amicus curiae” or friend-of-the-court briefs supporting their views.
Supreme Court Opinions and Decisions
Once oral arguments to a case have been completed, the justices retire to closed session to formulate their individual opinions to be attached to the Court's final decision. These discussions are closed to the public and press and are never recorded. Since the opinions are typically lengthy, heavily footnoted, and require extensive legal research, the justices are assisted in writing them by highly-qualified Supreme Court law clerks.
The Types of Supreme Court Opinions
There are four main types of Supreme Court opinions:
- Majority Opinions: Forming the Court's final decision, the majority opinion represents the opinions of the majority of the justices who heard the case. The majority opinion requires at least five justices unless one or more justices have chosen to recuse themselves (not take part) in the decision. The majority opinion is vital as it sets a legal precedent which must be followed by all future courts hearing similar cases.
- Concurring Opinions: Justices may also attach concurring opinions to the Court's majority opinion. As the name implies, concurring opinions agree with the majority opinion. However, concurring opinions may focus on different points of law or agree with the majority for a totally different reason.
- Dissenting Opinions: Justices who disagree with the majority typically write dissenting opinions explaining the basis for their vote. Not only do dissenting opinions help to explain the Court's reasoning in its decision, they are often used in majority opinions in similar future cases. Confusingly, justices will write mixed opinions that agree with parts of the majority opinion but disagree with others.
- Per Curiam Decisions: In rare cases, the Court will issue a “per curium” opinion. “Per Curiam" is a Latin phrase meaning “by the court.” Per curiam opinions are majority opinions are delivered by the Court as a whole, rather than authored by an individual justice.
Should the Supreme Court fail to reach a majority opinion -- arrive at a tie vote -- the decisions reached by the lower federal courts or state supreme courts are allowed to remain in effect as if the Supreme Court had never even considered the case. However, the rulings of the lower courts will have no "precedent setting" value, meaning they will not apply in other states as with majority Supreme Court decisions.