Monday, September 27, 2021

First Monday in October

Monday, October 4 marks the annual opening of the U.S. Supreme Court's new argument term, as set forth in 28 U.S.C. § 2. "First Monday in October" hasn't always been the start of a new Court term, however: as noted in the treatise Supreme Court Practice § 1.2(f) (Reserves KF9057 .S8 2019 & online in Bloomberg Law), the opening day of the Court's term (and even the total number of regular terms per year) has changed over time…although not since 1916.

This year, the Court will return to oral arguments inside the courtroom, after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to schedule remote arguments for the end of the 2019-2020 term, and for the entirety of October Term 2020. However, the Court's building will remain closed to the public, limiting in-person access during arguments to the justices, the attorneys, and to a limited number of media representatives. The Court anticipates live audio streaming of oral arguments to continue through at least December, a practice that began during the pandemic after many years of institutional resistance.

Last week, the Court announced another update to its argument format, inspired by the changes made during remote arguments. The remote argument format allotted each justice dedicated questioning time in order of seniority, rather than the more freewheeling, interruption-prone in-person oral arguments. Upon returning to the courtroom, the Court will take a hybrid approach: first, the traditional open questioning during an attorney's argument time, followed by a more structured question-and-answer portion in order of seniority. The Court's Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued before the Supreme Court of the United States has already been updated with this change.

This new term begins at a time when polling firm Gallup reports that U.S. public opinion of the Supreme Court is at an historic low, with only 40% of Americans approving of the Court's recent activities. The Court has come under increased scrutiny for its "shadow docket" rulings on emergency petitions, which can have sweeping impacts without the processes of oral argument, deliberation, or lengthy opinion drafting. Most recently, the Court's unsigned 5-4 ruling that declined to block Texas's restrictive new abortion law from taking effect pending constitutional challenges has sparked new debate, with dissenting Justice Elena Kagan observing, "Today's ruling illustrates just how far the Court's 'shadow-docket' decisions may depart from the usual principles of appellate process." 

 This Court term is likely to generate more controversy, with a petition already pending before SCOTUS on the Texas abortion law as well as oral argument on the constitutionality of a Mississippi abortion ban scheduled for December. Detailed descriptions of cases already on the Court’s upcoming docket can be found at SCOTUSblog and the Court's own argument calendar.

For more information on the history and practices of the U.S. Supreme Court, check out the resources linked in the library's research guide or Ask a Librarian.