Wednesday, September 28, 2016

100 Years of First Monday

Still missing a ninth justice after the death of Antonin Scalia in February, the eight remaining members of the U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearing oral arguments on Tuesday, October 4. But it is Monday, October 3, which marks the official beginning of the Court's October Term 2016 – for the last century, the "first Monday in October" has been the start date of the U.S. Supreme Court's annual term, thanks to Public Law No. 64-258.

The treatise Supreme Court Practice (10th ed. 2013), section 1.2(f) (KF9057 .S8 2013 & on Bloomberg Law) describes the long history behind the Supreme Court's now-famous start date:
In the First Judiciary Act of 1789, 1 Stat. 73, Congress mandated that the Court hold two sessions a year, "the one commencing the first Monday of February, and the other the first Monday of August." The provision for two sessions was apparently inspired in large part by a desire to allow the Justices to perform their time-consuming circuit-riding functions in the temperate spring and autumn weather. Subsequent term changes were made as the Court's business increased and the circuit-riding duties began a slow decline. During the nineteenth century, Congress reduced the number of sessions to one, while changing the opening day first to the second Monday in January, then to the first Monday in December, and then to the second Monday in October. Finally, in 1916, Congress fixed the opening day as the "first Monday in October." And the "first Monday in October" has remained to this day as the opening session of the Court's annual term.
The 1916 law came just a few days too late to be applicable in October 1916; the statute passed on September 6 with an effective date of 30 days. So the Court commenced for one last time on the second Monday in October 1916. The first "First Monday" term took place in October 1917.

In The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (Ref KF8742.A35 O93 2005 & in Oxford Reference Online), Duke Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Law Peter G. Fish noted that the earliest First Mondays were typically ceremonial in nature, featuring new admissions to the Supreme Court Bar, tributes to deceased justices and court officers, and (until the start of World War II) "adjournment for a White House visit." Oral arguments did not occur on First Monday until 1964, and have been scheduled regularly since 1975. This year, though, the Court will begin with a non-argument day.

What's in store for the Court in this new term? SCOTUSblog is a helpful resource for keeping up with the latest petition grants, oral arguments, and (eventually) opinions. The American Bar Association Supreme Court Preview includes briefs and other materials from upcoming cases.

With Justice Scalia's seat still vacant, pending congressional action on the March nomination of Merrick Garland, the Court continues to face the possibility of a 4-4 tie in controversial cases. As the nation was reminded last spring, a 4-4 Supreme Court results in a per curiam opinion which upholds the lower court's ruling "by an equally divided Court." (For more on the subject, see a 2002 article from the William & Mary Law Review, "Ties in the Supreme Court of the United States.")

For more information about the history and operations of the nation's highest court, visit the Goodson Law Library research guide to the U.S. Supreme Court  or Ask a Librarian.