The Supreme Court

SUPREME COURT PROCEDURES

Once a case has been placed on the docket, briefs, or short arguments explaining each party’s view of the case, must be submitted—first by the petitioner putting forth his or her case, then by the respondent. After initial briefs have been filed, both parties may file subsequent briefs in response to the first. Likewise, people and groups that are not party to the case but are interested in its outcome may file an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief giving their opinion, analysis, and recommendations about how the Court should rule. Interest groups in particular can become heavily involved in trying to influence the judiciary by filing amicus briefs—both before and after a case has been granted cert. And, as noted earlier, if the United States is not party to a case, the solicitor general may file an amicus brief on the government’s behalf.

With briefs filed, the Court hears oral arguments in cases from October through April. The proceedings are quite ceremonial. When the Court is in session, the robed justices make a formal entrance into the courtroom to a standing audience and the sound of a banging gavel. The Court’s marshal presents them with a traditional chant: “The Honorable, the Chief Justice and the Associate Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States. Oyez! Oyez! Oyez! [Hear ye!] All persons having business before the Honorable, the Supreme Court of the United States, are admonished to draw near and give their attention, for the Court is now sitting. God save the United States and this Honorable Court!”“The Court and its Procedures.” Supreme Court of the United States. May 26, 2015. It has not gone unnoticed that the Court, which has defended the First Amendment’s religious protection and the traditional separation of church and state, opens its every public session with a mention of God.

During oral arguments, each side’s lawyers have thirty minutes to make their legal case, though the justices often interrupt the presentations with questions. The justices consider oral arguments not as a forum for a lawyer to restate the merits of his or her case as written in the briefs, but as an opportunity to get answers to any questions they may have.“Supreme Court Procedures.” United States Courts. http://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1 (March 1, 2016). When the United States is party to a case, the solicitor general (or one of his or her assistants) will argue the government’s position; even in other cases, the solicitor general may still be given time to express the government’s position on the dispute.

When oral arguments have been concluded, the justices have to decide the case, and they do so in conference, which is held in private twice a week when the Court is in session and once a week when it is not. The conference is also a time to discuss petitions for certiorari, but for those cases already heard, each justice may state his or her views on the case, ask questions, or raise concerns. The chief justice speaks first about a case, then each justice speaks in turn, in descending order of seniority, ending with the most recently appointed justice.“Supreme Court Procedures.” United States Courts. http://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/supreme-1 (March 1, 2016). The judges take an initial vote in private before the official announcement of their decisions is made public.

Oral arguments are open to the public, but cameras are not allowed in the courtroom, so the only picture we get is one drawn by an artist’s hand, an illustration or rendering. Cameras seem to be everywhere today, especially to provide security in places such as schools, public buildings, and retail stores, so the lack of live coverage of Supreme Court proceedings may seem unusual or old-fashioned. Over the years, groups have called for the Court to let go of this tradition and open its operations to more “sunshine” and greater transparency. Nevertheless, the justices have resisted the pressure and remain neither filmed nor photographed during oral arguments.Jonathan Sherman. “End the Supreme Court's Ban on Cameras.” New York Times. 24 April 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/24/opinion/open-the-supreme-court-to-cameras.html.