[This post updates my June 18 post to take into account the cases decided since then.]
In the next week, the Supreme Court is expected to issue 16 more decisions in argued cases, on topics ranging from partisan gerrymandering to the decision to add a question about citizenship to the census.
We have no way of knowing precisely when each decision will be released, nor is there any way to know who is writing an opinion until it is announced in the courtroom. However, as the end of the term draws closer, sometimes it is possible to find some clues. The justices try very hard to divide up the opinion-writing workload evenly, not only over the course of the entire term but also from sitting (the two-week period each month in which the justices hear oral argument) to sitting. This means, for example, that if all but one case from a sitting has been decided, and all but one justice has already written an opinion for the court for that sitting, the remaining justice is probably writing the remaining opinion.
The key word, of course, in the previous sentence is “probably.” Going into this morning’s announcement of opinions, there was only one case remaining from the court’s October sitting: Gundy v. United States, in which the justices were considering whether the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act violates the nondelegation doctrine – which bars Congress from giving its legislative power to another branch of government unless it provides an “intelligible principle” to guide the government officials who will be implementing the law – because it gives the U.S. attorney general authority to decide whether the law’s registration requirement applies to sex offenders convicted before the law went into effect. (One case, Knick v. Township of Scott, was originally argued on October 3, when the court had only eight justices, but it was later scheduled for reargument in January.) Justice Sonia Sotomayor was the only justice who had not yet written for the October sitting, so the conventional wisdom was that she was likely writing in Gundy (which, like Knick, was argued before Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court). But when the decision was released, Justice Elena Kagan turned out to have written for the court instead of Sotomayor, who wound up without any opinions in October.
There are no more tea leaves to read for November: All the cases from that sitting have been decided.
We continue to wait for just one case from the court’s December sitting: Carpenter v. Murphy, in which the justices are considering whether the reservation in eastern Oklahoma once given to an Indian tribe remains a reservation for purposes of the federal Major Crimes Act, thereby barring the state from prosecuting a Native American for a murder committed on that land. All the justices have now written at least one opinion from the December sitting; with 10 cases argued during the sitting, one justice will have to write again.
Two cases from January remain undecided: Knick, the case first argued in October, in which the justices are considering when property owners who claim that a local government has unconstitutionally “taken” their property can bring a lawsuit in federal court; and Tennessee Wine and Spirits Retailers Association v. Thomas, in which the justices are considering whether the Constitution allows a state to impose a two-year residency requirement for anyone who wants a retail license to sell alcohol there. Neither Chief Justice Roberts nor Justice Samuel Alito has written an opinion for January yet, so they are good bets to write the decisions in these – although there is no way right now to predict who might be writing which one.
With today’s opinion in American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the challenge to the constitutionality of a 93-year-old cross, built as a war memorial, that stands in a traffic circle in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, we are now waiting on just one case from the February sitting: United States v. Haymond, involving the constitutionality of a law that imposes additional prison time on a sex offender who violates the terms of his supervised release. Five justices –Alito, Sotomayor, Kagan, Kavanaugh and Justice Clarence Thomas – have already written opinions from February, so those justices are not likely to be the authors of the remaining two opinions, but it’s hard to say more than that.
In the March sitting, there are still five (out of nine) cases outstanding. Thomas and Sotomayor have already written opinions from March, as have Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, so those justices aren’t likely to be writing again for March, but any other guesses about who might be writing are all but impossible at this point.
Similarly, Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor and Kavanaugh have all written opinions from April already, but seven of the dozen cases argued in April still have not yet been decided. Three justices will have to write twice, making predictions difficult here as well.
Looking at how many majority opinions each justice has produced so far, Justice Clarence Thomas continues to lead the pack with eight, but Breyer is closing the gap with seven. Four justices – Ginsburg, Sotomayor, Kagan and Kavanaugh – have produced six opinions, while Neil Gorsuch has five opinions. Alito has now caught up with Roberts, as both have four opinions, but we expect to hear more from both of them over the next few days.
We’ll update this as more opinions are issued, giving us a fuller picture of who might be writing the decisions in different cases.
Thanks to Andrew Hamm for compiling the data on which this post is based.