The Supreme Court of the United States issued only its second set of opinions this term on January 22, 2018. At that rate, it has been the slowest pace for the Supreme Court of the United States to issue opinions since the 1800s, causing many to speculate as to the reason why. It is well known that the Supreme Court of the United States is often highly secretive in announcing the reasoning behind its opinions.
Some speculate that the reason for this historically slow pace is the result of a new Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch. However, research by Bloomberg Law seems to counter that speculation. The research showed the three most recent Supreme Court Justices (besides Neil Gorsuch) and how many opinions were handed down during their first term. In 2006, which was the first full term for Justice Samuel Alito Jr., there were seven set of opinions issued by late January. In 2009, which was the first full term for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, there were six set of opinions issued by late January. In 2010, which was the first full term for Justice Elena Kagan, there were four set of opinions issued by late January. Thus, the research shows that having a new justice within the Supreme Court of the United States does not necessarily cause opinions to be issued much less frequently.
Perhaps the fact that Justice Neil Gorsuch’s announcement that he will not join the Supreme Court of the United States clerical pool is causing some of these delays. The clerical pool is made up of Supreme Court Justices who share their law clerks, with the idea that this will maximize efficiency when deciding which cases to hear. This could point to Gorsuch often writing dissenting or conflicting opinions, causing more delays (similar to Justice Scalia).
Another theory for the historically slow pace deals with the small number of cases argued this past October and November. There were nine cases argued in October and six cases argued in November. The opinions of cases argued in October and November are usually issued around the following January. Most of those recent fifteen cases (October and November) were very important and as a result had multiple opinions stemming from each case. Thus, while there was only fifteen cases heard in those two months, there were far more opinions for each of those same cases. It will be interesting to see if the Supreme Court of the United State picks up the pace issuing opinions throughout the rest of the year.