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When should we expect the cases argued in the fall to be decided?

The Court’s new schedule seems simple enough. Cases argued in one term are decided before that term formally ends on August 31. The Court now treats June 30 as a self-imposed deadline, roughly mirroring the schedule of the U.S. Supreme Court (and leaving time for a meaningful summer break in July).

As advocates, the great benefit of having this single, fixed point on the calendar is that we now have a non-shrug-emoji answer to every client’s question, “When will my argued case be decided?” We can now confidently say “by June 30” (or slightly less confidently, “by the Friday before June 30, unless for some reason your case is abated”).

For cases argued in March and April, that’s super helpful. The median time for cases to be decided last term was 15 weeks; there are barely that many weeks between mid-March and the end of June. There just isn’t much room for variance. It’s hard to be wrong.

But for cases argued in September, the same fixed June 30 deadline is a school year away. Is there more precision we can offer? Does having more time remaining in the year allow the timelines to expand? Does having a relatively clean plate at the beginning of a term (with no cases carried over) allow at least some justices to write more quickly to get a head start?

The answer, it turns out, is yes and yes. Cases argued in September and October show a wide variance in decision time. The three fastest decisions of last term were argued in September. So, too, was the slowest decision of the term.

Some new Time to Decision charts

The small size of this data — and the varying gravitational pull of the June 30 deadline at different times of year — makes me reluctant to present a single summary statistic. Instead, I put together a new kind of chart1 to illustrate what is going on. If you’ve read this far, it might be worth your time to look over these charts to get your own visual sense of the patterns.

On the Time to Decision chart, each argued case is displayed as a bar on the graph with the endpoints showing when during the year it was argued, when it was decided, and (implicitly) how long the decision took. You can hover your mouse over the bar to see exact dates. The rightmost column shows the authoring justice; multiple justices means there were separate opinions. The chart has buttons at the top that let you reorder things by argument date, decision date, or time to decide.

What’s striking is how different the 2019 term looks compared to the pattern just two years ago. In the 2016 term and 2017 term, the Court took a different approach to the same June 30 deadline. There was no burst of quick decisions early. Instead, the cases argued last were the ones decided most quickly, while the cases argued first took much longer to decide.

Something is different. A notable, visible change is that the Court has started to hold two argument sittings in each of September and January — its return from summer break and from the holiday break. The direct effect was to shift some arguments earlier in the term, leaving even more time before the deadline of June 30. Taken alone, this would allow decision times for those early cases to grow even longer. But what the data for 2019 shows is different. Cases argued in the September and January sittings were among the very fastest decisions.

This burst of fast decisions seems like the product of focused effort by the Court to finish some opinions quickly. Part of that might have been motivated by Justice Johnson’s scheduled retirement in the fall. But other justices also wrote quickly last fall, and I would not be surprised if this general pattern continues.

So, is there a more refined answer to the question of how long decisions argued in September and October will take? Based on last term’s data, the median time to decide all cases was 15 weeks after argument, with most cases taking between 10 and 21 weeks from argument.2 And based on these charts, you can get a sense of how the time in the year a case is argued affects how quickly it might be decided.

If all that’s too much, you can just tell folks “by June 30” and rest easy knowing that you are unlikely to be wrong. If a decision does come quickly after argument, you can always break out that shrug emoji then.

  1. Well, it’s new to this blog. If these have been done for other courts, I’d be curious to see the examples (so I can shamelessly copy any good ideas for refinements). 
  2. These figures are displayed as the “quintile” lines that appear when you order the chart “By Time to Decide.” You can see for yourself how those figures have varied for past terms and how they fit the distribution more generally.