Making Decisions

_____ Supreme Court History _____
Past Justices
Choosing Cases
Oral Arguments
Making Decisions
Historic Cases
When the Supreme Court votes on whether to review a case, it is common practice to take more than one poll because the justices may switch sides during the process.

The first vote on a case is taken in the week of oral arguments. For cases heard on Mondays, the justices vote on Wednesday afternoon, in the secrecy of their conference room. For cases heard on Tuesday and Wednesday, they vote Friday.

Justice Ginsburg's chambers Justices choose their own office style. This is Ruth Bader Ginsburg's. (Photo by Frank Maroon)

After the vote, the most senior justice in the majority assigns the task of writing the majority opinion. The most senior justice on the losing side decides who will write the main opinion for the dissenting viewpoint. The other justices are free to write their own statements if they wish, but the majority opinion speaks for the court.

Sometimes, justices say, writing an opinion that all justices in the majority will sign is difficult. Sometimes, justices discover through writing an opinion and trying to justify it with prior court rulings that the case was not what it seemed. On occasion, the chief justice has thrown up his hands as the majority switched from its original position.

In many instances, the justices may be perfectly pleased with what the author of the majority opinion is writing but will offer thoughts for variations on the legal analysis or language. The author's task is to preserve his or her viewpoint, accommodate suggestions if it means keeping the majority and not to turn off others in the group.

Based on what outsiders are able to discern from the justices' public statements and from the opening of once-private papers of some justices, the justices do not trade votes during this process. Rather, they engage in a constant conversation by way of memos.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor once pointedly observed of this process, as she herself was trying to induce another justice to change his draft opinion, "I realize that it is much easier to cast suggestions over the chef's shoulder than it is to have one's head in the oven."

The give-and-take can last for weeks or months. But fortunately, there is June, when the court traditionally wraps up its work.

Beginning in early May, the court stops hearing oral arguments and increases its public release of decisions. Rulings traditionally are handed down on Mondays, although as the court nears the end of the term, they are announced on other days, too.

The media are never told in advance how many opinions to expect on a given day. Reporters will be told whether it is a "regular" day, meaning four or fewer opinions, or a "heavy" day (five or more).

Returning to the very public forum of the courtroom, the justice who has written the majority opinion briefly announces the court's ruling from the bench.

The late Justice Byron R. White (1962-1993) made the tersest of summaries, giving the case number and saying it was on file in the clerk's office. Today, many justices make comparatively lengthy bench announcements, giving the facts of the case, how lower courts ruled and details of the high court's decision.

As the court's process ends and the justices begin their long summer vacations, public response begins.

No matter how each term's rulings change American government or individual lives, the nine justices usually remain detached, almost never commenting on their work but returning to their conference room each October to start the process again.

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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