The Supreme Court's Supremely Predictable Habit

The Supreme Court's Supremely Predictable Habit

Why you should care

Because Hollywood can’t compete with the real-life queens of judicial drama.

The Oscars always save the best for last. If viewers want to find out whether Bradley Cooper or Matthew McConaughey will be going home with the award for best actor, they have to sit through hours of bad jokes and rambling acceptance speeches first. Well, the Supreme Court works kind of the same way. According to a new study:

Supreme Court justices have a

70-year

track record of waiting until the last minute of the term to issue their blockbuster rulings.

And while commentators have long speculated that the high court strategically times the release of its most influential decisions, it’s only now that their suspicions have been validated. “We don’t say whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just the way,” says researcher William Landes, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School.

The paper defined “big cases” based on several criteria: front-page coverage in The New York Times and three other national newspapers; the number of amicus curiae briefs filed; and how many subsequent citations rely on the ruling as precedent. While it makes sense that these cases would have more nuanced opinions and take more time to decide, the trend holds true even when those factors are accounted for. And the authors have a few opinions on why that may be.

Legacy, for starters. When the Supremes suspect a case could be big, they likely spend as much time as possible refining their opinions. After all, their words will live on in case law, articles and textbooks for decades to come. On the other hand, they may be avoiding attention. By releasing all the decisions at once, the court reduces the hoopla around any one. Or it could just be about self-preservation: Issue the controversial rulings and then skip town for summer recess — and avoid any backlash on the cocktail-party circuit.

Of course, it could just be a coincidence, or some other reason that we’ll never know (the court’s press office didn’t respond to our request for comment). University of Michigan law professor Richard Primus says the authors’ speculations are, in classic lawyer talk, unsubstantiated. Though that doesn’t stop him from adding his own conjecture to the pile: “There may be a sense of the drama of the occasion. Everyone expects them to come out then, and the court delivers them then.”

With the advent of June, anticipation is in the air. The bench will soon decide if the Constitution protects same-sex marriage, the fate of federal tax subsidies under the Affordable Care Act, and whether Texas violated free speech by not allowing state license plates with the Confederate flag. No doubt this term’s finale will not disappoint those looking for some fiery summer gossip.

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