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Why the Supreme Court may be releasing decisions unusually late this year

The high court entered the final week of June with a heavier case load than in years past.
Supreme Court
Posted at 2:05 PM, Jun 27, 2024

Every year, toward the end of June, many eyes turn toward the U.S. Supreme Court.

This is the season when the nine justices are expected to release their remaining decisions — which are usually the biggest cases of the term — then they leave for their summer breaks.

But this year, court watchers say something unusual is happening. The high court has entered the final week of June with a heavier case load than in years past.

At the start of the final week in June, the High Court had 14 remaining opinions with less than a week to go in June. Compare that number to the final nine opinions that were announced in the court’s final week of 2023 and the seven final opinions that were announced in the last week of June in 2022.

So why are justices waiting this long to release opinions for this term? Scripps News legal affairs correspondent Ava-joye Burnett spoke with legal scholars — including some who’ve clerked at the high court — and they have a few theories.

William Treanor is the dean at Georgetown Law. Treanor explained the delay in releasing major decisions could be attributed to the court’s decision to weigh several high-profile cases this term. Treanor says the delay could also be as a result of tension among the justices.

“There's more tension in the court than there has been in the past. So for example, Justice Thomas has said that before [Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization], the Supreme Court used to be like a family and he said a dysfunctional family, but a family, and that the leak of the Dobbs decision was like an infidelity,” said Treanor.

“Justice Sotomayor has talked about how upset she is in some decisions that she has gone into her office and shut the door and cried. There's a tension that we didn't see in the past, so that may be the reason why they haven't decided so many important cases," Treanor said.

The Supreme Court is notoriously opaque. The public doesn’t always know what’s going on behind closed doors, but we sometimes get insight from the justices themselves, or people who’ve worked inside the building. One of those people is Daniel Epps, who clerked for Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Epps, a law professor at Washington University School of Law, said now that the Supreme Court is in the final days of the term, the halls of the court are filled with a frenzy of activity, with justices and clerks shooting opinions back and forth among each other. As the final edits are made, rifts between the justices could expand, or consensuses could be reached.

Epps said the more the justices disagree, the longer it takes for decisions to be released.

“Making matters worse, this is a court with a lot of justices who like to speak for themselves. They like to write their own opinions and explain why they want to do things a little bit differently and how they've got the best way to think about it,” said Epps. “And when you combine those two things, it means a lot of people writing opinions, a lot of people who want to have something to say, and that creates a lot of movement, moving pieces, in the most contentious, highest-profile cases.”

Epps explained justices take more time to craft the most high-profile cases.

“I think it's just that those are the cases that they're working the hardest on and that they're disagreeing about, and that they're wanting to work on until the last minute. It's like that's the term paper where you really care about your grade and you're trying to get it perfect,” said Epps.

Laurence Gostin is a professor at Georgetown Law. Gostin said the court has evolved over the years. He said the court has chosen to weigh in on controversial matters — from gun rights to abortion — and that may be contributing to the delay and possible disagreement.

“I think there's considerable angst between the liberal and conservative part of the court, and I think the liberals are quite angry about how this is playing out,” said Gostin.

Cliff Sloan is also a professor at Georgetown Law. He clerked at the Supreme Court under Justice John Paul Stevens and told Scripps News he’s argued in front of the high court seven times.

Sloan said as we approach the end of the term with key decisions that are still outstanding, tension and disagreement among justices could rise.

“It’s a common saying that the opinions at the end of the term can kind of be more snarky and vituperative,” said Sloan. “Which sort of reflects the nature of the cases, but it also sort of reflects this end of term frenzy.”

Sloan said parties who are affiliated with the cases are usually extremely anxious, including the attorneys who are waiting to see if their arguments were accepted or rejected.

“They're sort of anxiously waiting at 10 a.m. and then the Supreme Court issues the opinions one at a time in reverse seniority, so the most junior justice that has an opinion will go first, and you don't know until the end how many [opinions] they're going to announce or which ones they will be,” said Sloan. “And so I'm sure they're sitting there very, very anxiously.”