Why the Supreme Court Left Us Hanging on Health Care

After a flurry of media expectation Monday morning, the Supreme Court delayed the announcement of the most important ruling of its current term until Thursday. But it's not because the Justices like the attention; they might still be working on their opinions

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The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington

If you turned on a TV news show Monday morning, you were probably told to expect a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act any minute. Newsrooms around the country were braced for the most important ruling of the court’s term, on what has become the centerpiece of the President’s domestic policies and a vital pivot point in the coming presidential election. SCOTUSblog, a go-to website that monitors the court’s activities, added staff and bolstered its servers to the tune of some $10,000 a day in order to cover the verdict, expected soon after 10 a.m. E.T. Don’t touch that dial.

And then — nothing. While the court did issue major rulings on Arizona’s controversial immigration law and a Montana law on campaign spending, it quit for the day without addressing health care and is expected to pick up again on Thursday.

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Supreme Court Justices first heard oral arguments on health care reform in late March and took a preliminary vote on the health care issue on March 30 — at which point both the majority and the minority began drafting opinions as Justices kept discussing the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act. So nearly three months later, what’s behind the continued delay?

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According to legal journalist Lyle Denniston, who currently writes for SCOTUSblog and has been covering the Supreme Court since 1958, this court typically releases decisions when it’s ready, often working up to the last moment polishing its opinions to be published.

“There are little telltale signs that they aren’t finished with it until the very last minute before they release it,” Denniston says of the Justices. The court’s decisions are usually published in a formal pamphlet, “but sometimes we’ll just get a broadside just as if it came right off the printer,” he says.

The court set June 1 as the official due date for the majority’s draft and June 15 as the date for the minority’s draft. Each side had to submit an official draft on these dates but not a final one. Both sides have most likely kept working on their arguments, negotiating finer points or even major ones, right up until the court’s summer recess. According to published guidelines for Supreme Court procedures:

By law, the U.S. Supreme Court’s term begins on the first Monday in October and goes through the Sunday before the first Monday in October of the following year. The Court is, typically, in recess from late June/early July until the first Monday in October.

Justices can change their vote or call back their opinion until the moment the opinion is formally announced. So it’s possible, but unlikely, that as the recess date approaches, their final decision may still be up in the air.

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More likely, though, is that the Justices are lobbing e-mails back and forth (or knocking on one another’s doors for face-to-face chats) to resolve the finer points of the formal opinions that will become historic legal precedent.

Chief Justice John Roberts usually chooses not to postpone announcements of decisions once they’re ready, Denniston says, whereas earlier Chief Justices might have avoided announcing too many high-profile decisions on one day, aware that some of the decisions will inevitably get short shrift in the media.

Under Roberts’ tenure, the court has usually avoided that problem by spacing its workload throughout the year. Roberts is known for not allowing court decisions to pile up in June. But when Roberts’ court does end up with a bunch of decisions ready around the same time, he still chooses to announce each case when it’s ready. “This case is the last probably because it’s the hardest,” Denniston says.

The court almost always wraps up its decisions for the term by the last day in June. A few times, it has waited until the first days of July. But don’t worry: Roberts has promised everything will come out on Thursday. The court also still has to announce its decisions on five other cases, including a title-insurance case and whether it is a crime to lie about military honors.

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