When will the Supreme Court start deciding cases again? Are they still on vacation?

The short answer to the first question is that oral arguments will recommence on October 7 – the first Monday in October – and ISCOTUSnow will be providing information about some of the cases to be argued. But a longer answer requires delving into various aspects of the Court’s operations.

The Supreme Court organizes its work by annual Terms, each of which begins on the first Monday in October. Each Term is referred to by reference to the month and year they begin. We are about to start October Term 2013, and we can expect that all of the cases decided during this Term will be announced by the end of June 2014. But it would be a mistake to assume that nothing important happens from July through September. There is, in fact, a fair amount of activity. Here are a few of the things that are going on:

  1. The Cert Petitions. Filing a petition for certiorari, or cert petition, is the formal mechanism for asking the Supreme Court to review most cases. The Supreme Court Rules provide that cert petitions must be filed within 90 days of entry of the judgment being appealed. In other words, cert petitions are steadily filed with the Supreme Court throughout the year. Over the summer, just as they do from October through June, law clerks prepare memos about the petitions or otherwise work with their justices to sort through them. Right before the new Term begins – this year on September 30 – the Court holds a “long conference” – a meeting of all the justices at which they decide which of these petitions they will grant. Different justices prepare for that meeting in different ways, but all of them will walk in ready to talk about and vote on any petition that they or their colleagues think merits discussion.
  2. The Merits Cases. Most of the briefs for the cases that will be argued in October have already been filed. In many chambers, the law clerks and the justices are already preparing for the first oral arguments.
  3. The Miscellaneous Stuff. There is a certain amount of business that continues during the summer. The Court decides (and virtually always denies) motions for reconsideration, for example. It also considers applications for stays, including in capital cases. The justices may not be in Washington, but technology allows them to participate in such decisions from wherever they are.
  4. The New Law Clerks. Summer is when the old law clerks leave and the new ones arrive. In most chambers, the arrivals and departures are staggered so that the first new law clerks overlap with some of the old ones. Having some time without regular oral arguments means that the law clerks can master many aspects of their jobs before the intensity of the Term.