The procedures of the United States Supreme Court are commonly thought of as convoluted yet airtight, established with the goal of preventing bias and outside influence from affecting the decisions of our highest court. One such procedure is the drafting and publishing of the opinions of the Supreme Court.
“Opinions” of the Supreme Court are documents released by the Supreme Court with the Court’s judgment and reasoning for a particular case. Rule 41 of the Supreme Court Rules requires that opinions of the Court be released “immediately upon their announcement from the bench” by the Supreme Court Clerk. Title 28 Ch. 19 of the United States Code outlines the procedure for the distribution of reports and digests of the Supreme Court, while Title 28 § 676 of the U.S. Code permits the Court to approve a private printer to print and bind Supreme Court documents.
Opinions are generally drafted during “recess” periods of a Supreme Court Term. A Term of the Supreme Court begins on the first Monday of October and continues until late June or early July. Each Term is divided in approximately two-week intervals of “sittings,” when the Justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and “recesses,” when the Justices consider current and forthcoming cases and draft opinions. According to the United States Courts website, there are no official rules concerning when decisions must be released, except for the requirement that all opinions of the Court be handed down by the last day of the Court’s Term. Opinions are typically released on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and on the third Monday of each sitting.
After hearing the oral arguments of a case, Supreme Court Justices typically confer first with their law clerks, and then meet in an official “private conference” of Justices to decide the case. The Justices present their opinions and then take a vote. The senior justice of the majority opinion will assign a justice to write the majority opinion, and the same happens if there is a dissenting opinion. A justice may write a concurring opinion if they agree with the outcome of a case but not the reasoning behind it. Justices may also write their own dissenting opinion. Drafts of opinions are circulated and shared internally before being finalized. The time it takes to finalize an opinion depends on several factors, including how divided the Justices are, which justice is writing the opinion, and the court’s schedule.
Opinions are disseminated to the public through four printed publications (listed below) and two computerized services (the Court’s Project Hermes, and the Court’s official website). Only the bound volumes of the United States Reports contain the final, official text of the opinions of the Supreme Court. Other resources for finding Supreme Court opinions are listed on the Court’s website.
Bench opinions: On days that the Supreme Court announces opinions from the bench, the text of each opinion is then made available immediately to the public in a printed pamphlet called a “bench opinion.” Bench opinions contain the majority or plurality opinion, any concurring or dissenting opinions, and a syllabus prepared by the Reporter’s Office that summarizes the decision. Bench opinions are made available in print to the public by the Court’s Public Information Office and are also disseminated electronically via Project Hermes; subscribers to Project Hermes include universities, news media, and other publishing sources that often re-disseminate the bench opinions online.
Slip opinions: Several days after an opinion is announced by the Supreme Court, it is printed in a pamphlet called a “slip opinion.” Slip opinions contain the same material as bench opinions but may contain corrections. Slip opinions are printed and distributed free of charge by the Court’s Public Information Office and are also posted on the Supreme Court’s website. Slip opinions are available on the Court’s website until the opinions for an entire Term are published in the U.S. Reports.
Preliminary prints: The preliminary prints of the U.S. Reports are brown, soft-cover “advance pamphlets” that contain all the information that make up the U.S. Reports. The contents of two or three preliminary prints will eventually be combined into a single bound volume in the U.S. Reports. The title of each preliminary part will then contain a part number. Before publication, the content of a preliminary print undergoes an extensive editing and indexing process, and page numbers are assigned that carry over to the bound volume.
Bound volumes (United States Reports): The opinions and other materials published in the preliminary prints undergo a final editing and indexing process and are finally published in a casebound set of law books, the United States Reports or U.S. Reports. The official bound volumes are published by a commercial printing company under contract with the U.S. Government Publishing Office. U.S. Reports from 1991-2014 are also available on the Supreme Court’s website.
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