Explainer: What you should know about Supreme Court opinions

April 29, 2022

Every year the Supreme Court issues rulings in about a half dozen cases that have significant implications for religious liberty, human dignity, freedom of speech, and other concerns of special interest to Christians. Many Americans, though, find this process vague and mysterious and only hear about the decision the day it is reported by the news media. Here is what you should know about the process and when you can expect Supreme Court rulings. 

What are Supreme Court opinions?

An opinion announces a decision and provides an explana­tion for the decision by the court. It explains the legal rationale that the justices relied upon to reach the decision.

The main opinion is the binding decision of the court. If all justices agree to the ruling, it is a unanimous opinion. If at least half the justices agree, it is a majority opinion. If the decision is made by less than the majority (e.g., because one or more justices recuse themselves and didn’t vote), it would be a plurality opinion. 

The main opinion is typically written by one justice. The most senior justice in the majority gets to assign the author of the opinion, whether to themselves or to another justice.

Because the justices do not always completely agree about the reasons for an opinion, there are often multiple opinions issued. As the American Bar Association explains, “Jus­tices who agree with the result of the main opinion, or the resolution of the dispute between the two par­ties, but base their decision on a different rationale may issue one or more concurring opinion(s). Justices who disagree with the main opinion in both result and legal rationale may issue one or more dissenting opinion(s).”

When does the Supreme Court release opinions?

The Supreme Court operates on an annual rhythm known as the Term. The Term for the Supreme Court begins, by federal law, on the first Monday in October and lasts until the first Monday in October of the next year. 

The Term is divided between “sittings,” when the justices hear cases and deliver opinions, and intervening “recesses,” when they consider the business before the court and write opinions. Sittings and recesses alternate at approximately two-week intervals.

Technically, the court recesses at the end of June, but the work of the justices continues around the year. During the summer they do such work as considering motions and applications, and make preparations for cases scheduled to be argued later in the year.

Opinions are typically released on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings and on the third Monday of each sitting, when the court takes the bench but no arguments are heard. Opinion release days are highlighted in yellow on the calendar of the court’s website. They begin being released at 10 a.m. EST.

Decisions that are unanimous are released sooner than those that have concurring and dissenting opinions. In general, though, the earliest that opinions are released is in December. Most come in April, May, or June, with the most controversial tending to come nearer to the end of the sitting. Court sessions typically continue until late June or early July. 

How do we know which opinions will be released on a given day?

We can’t. The Supreme Court doesn’t announce in advance which cases will be decided, so no one knows until the ruling is handed down. The court doesn’t even notify any of the lawyers in a case before it issues an opinion. Unless it is the last day before the summer recess, the lawyers don’t know whether they will get a decision in their cases.

The court also doesn’t specify on a given day how many opinions will be released — and doesn’t even announce when it is finished issuing opinions for the day. Court watchers, though, have a useful rule of thumb — sometimes call the R-number system which helps them know when the court is done releasing opinions that day. As SCOTUSBlog explains:

When the opinions are eventually published in the U.S. Reports, the official bound version of the court’s opinions, they are published chronologically, with the opinions for a particular day published in order of seniority. The R number, which appears to the left of the opinion date/docket number/case name on the court’s website, refers to the order in which the opinion will appear in the U.S. Reports. But because opinions are announced in order of reverse seniority, the opinions on the court’s website can’t be assigned an R number until all of the opinions have been posted. Therefore, the posting of the R numbers is a sign that the court is done issuing opinions for that day.

How does the court decide the order in which opinions will be released on a given day?

The opinions are posted by the court in order of reverse seniority. The chief justice, John Roberts, is always the most senior. The other justices are ranked according to how long they’ve been with the court. The current order of seniority is Clarence Thomas, Stephen Breyer (who just heard his last case and will retire), Samuel Alito, Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Because of seniority, if Justice Barrett has any opinions, hers are released first, followed by Justices Kavanaugh, Gorsuch, Kagan, and so on through the chief justice.

There are exceptions to this general reverse-seniority rule, for example, when the justices are announcing decisions in two or more cases involving similar issues and it makes more sense to announce one first.

Which opinions are the ERLC most concerned with this Term?

The ERLC has advocated on behalf of Southern Baptists in six different cases through filing amicus curie (friend-of-the-court) briefs with the Supreme Court. You can learn more about those cases at erlc.com/SCOTUS.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24