Announcing Supreme Court Opinions

I’ve been listening to audio on of the public announcements in famous recent Supreme Court opinions. (I was in the Court for the announcement of City of Boerne v. Flores, by sheer happenstance.) While these statements are interesting historical artifacts and do convey the personalities of the Justices to some extent, I’m left to wonder why the Court still goes through this old-fashioned exercise. Today every merits opinion is posted on the Court’s website for immediate download.  This is how opinions are released by federal circuit courts and by most state supreme courts. They do not convene an open session to announce decisions. (Maybe some state supreme court also does an oral announcement–I’d be curious if anyone knows.)

I can think of two reasons that might support continuing the announcement tradition.  One is that the Justices are helping the journalists who cover the Court by summarizing opinions being issued. How much they are helped by what gets said is another question. Second, the oral tradition allows dissenting Justices to emphasize their disagreement by making a statement to that effect from the bench.  Does this add anything to the written dissent?  I would say no.

Of course, announcing opinions orally usually does no harm, though I can think of some instances in which a Justice said something impolitic while announcing a dissent (Justice McReynolds did this once in comparing the federal government’s partial repudiation of the gold standard with Nero’s debasement of the currency, which then led people to think he was calling FDR a Nero.)

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3 Responses

  1. Josh Lee says:

    The Arkansas Supreme Court announces its decisions in open court by authoring Justice but, strangely, they just say the name of the case and “affirmed” or “reversed” and announce the names of concurring and dissenting Justices.

  2. Joe says:

    In the past, different justices had different styles regarding announcements. Some — this was, e.g., standard practice for Chief Justice Burger — basically only provided the information referenced by Josh Lee.

    The oral announcement provides an oral summary of the opinion, usually in more basic terms than what can be a long opinion and even the headnotes can be hard going especially for a layperson. To take a more well known example, the various opinions in the death penalty case, including Breyer summarizing his views and Scalia responding provided something even if you can read Breyer’s forty page dissent etc.

    It is a quick way for those in the courtroom, notably members of the press as well as others [including members of the general public], to get a sense of the opinion. This “adds” something to the overall situation, I think. And, I think SCOTUS should provide it on its website. This would provide it to the general public right away & not months later.

  3. Joe says:

    The oral summary is a sort of \”official\” summary of the opinion, not colored by the reporters involved, who generally are a good bunch, but still not quite the same. I read somewhere that the justices might be concerned with people thinking the summary was \”official\” but then we get headnotes and that has a disclaimer too. I\’m not sure why some member of the press isn\’t designated to transcribe the oral announcements in each case. Is this somehow not allowed?