The Supreme Court tends to save the biggest judgments for last — one constitutional expert explains some good reasons

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(THE TALK) The U.S. Supreme Court on June 23, 2022 overturned a New York law that imposed severe restrictions on carrying a handgun in public. It was a much-anticipated decision as the court will continue to issue opinions before the end of its term for the next week or two.

But people have been waiting to see exactly when the court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which could overturn Roe v. Wade, will be issued.

The court announces on which days it will publish judgments and is not due to announce more until June 24. No one outside the court knows when which key judgments will be released — or if the court might decide to release more opinions by early July.

There’s a reason the court remains so secretive, and why its abortion verdict will likely be one of the last before the court heads into the summer. We asked constitutional scholar and Supreme Court expert Stefanie Lindquist to explain what’s behind the court, which keeps its work top secret.

Does the research support this notion that the court saves the most high-profile judgments for last?

Very careful investigations have been carried out by very respected scholars and judges who have examined the claim that the most important decisions of the court are made late in the term. They measured importance by the extent to which the New York Times reported on the case. And her research has confirmed that it is absolutely correct that the court’s most important decisions – such as those overturning a precedent – are only announced at the end of the term.

One reason may be that the court is particularly careful with the content of these decisions. And because they might have involved more negotiation about the content of the Opinion itself or the extra work of writing dissents and consents.

Is it clear why they publish these important decisions at the end of the term?

There has been some speculation that they may hold off on giving these opinions before leaving town. Being social beings like all of us, some speculate that they don’t want to discuss these cases in their social circles. But I think it’s most likely that it’s a combination of workload and because these cases are more time intensive. The judges also understand the public impact these cases can have. But ultimately, it’s not exactly clear why they do it.

The court is known for its secrecy. What is the point of the court being so secretive about its decisions?

The Court is an institution that over time has been very careful about its legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

The late Judge Antonin Scalia asked his staff to sign an agreement respecting the privacy of the court’s deliberations. He told them that if they violated this secrecy, he would do anything to undermine their future career.

The court takes great care to ensure that an opinion, once given, is the final opinion. Uncovering internal and potentially divisive dynamics surrounding the court’s decision-making process could undermine the force and impact of a Supreme Court decision.

Why don’t they even say when a particular decision will be announced?

I think it’s probably difficult for them, to be honest, to predict the exact timing of decisions. Remember that the court’s final judgments are the result of a negotiation between the individual judges. And until they’re ready, they can’t necessarily say, “This is the day we say goodbye,” especially at the end of the semester when a lot of these very important decisions are being announced.

Negotiations and corrections can take place up to the last minute. The judges will no doubt appreciate that these extremely important decisions will make their way into law school textbooks. They are carefully read by journalists. And the judges are a highly professional group of individuals.

So they are concerned about any opinion they give. But with those opinions they give at the end of the semester, those tend to be the most important decisions they make — they’re even more anxious to be precise in every sentence they write

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