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.