Justices Are of an Opinion, but Not Often

(Ozzy Osbourne Photo By Mj Kim -- Getty Images)
By Robert Barnes
Monday, March 26, 2007

When Justice Antonin Scalia met with members of a Northern Virginia business organization in December, he told them about an important case the Supreme Court had recently heard and then teased them a little.

"I know how that one comes out, but I'm not going to tell you," he said.

They're still in the dark. And so are a lot of others, as the court is off to a slower-than-usual pace in issuing opinions. The justices have issued 23 decisions so far, a bit behind last year's pace. Of course, at this point, they've also heard fewer cases than last year.

Justices decide cases soon after oral arguments, but the process of drafting and circulating opinions can take months. Justices aim to have everything completed by the end of June, and often the court's most controversial cases are not released until then.

But the court's work is done when it's done, and for that reason, even mentioning the slow pace can be dicey. The court could unleash a blizzard of opinions this week.

After legal analysts and reporters noted earlier in the term that the justices were on a path to take far fewer cases than in recent years, the court accepted a raft of new ones in January.

That decision means a busy close for the court. Besides writing opinions in cases they've heard, the justices are scheduled to hear 16 cases in April, the same number as in February and March combined.

Shifting Ideologies

"You've changed'' -- the timeless lament of disappointed lovers -- can also be applied to Supreme Court justices. Everyone's thought about that, right?

A group of professors writes in a forthcoming article in the Northwestern University Law Review that ideological drift among justices is not just possible but also likely.

"Contrary to the received wisdom, virtually all justices serving since 1937 grew more liberal or conservative during their tenure on the court," wrote Lee Epstein (Northwestern), Andrew D. Martin (Washington University in St. Louis), Kevin M. Quinn (Harvard) and Jeffrey Segal (State University of New York at Stony Brook).

Oh, it starts off fine. "Presidents hoping to create a lasting legacy . . . can be reasonably certain that their appointees will behave in line with expectations -- at least during the justice's first term in office," the professors write.

But it is not too long before some start to stray. "Even before hitting the first-decade mark, most justices fluctuate," the article says.

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