Suspense Builds For Verdicts On Most-Watched High Court Cases

Again this year, the Supreme Court is waiting until the very end of the term to hand down the most anticipated decisions. Why does the high court always seem to do that?

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Let's now delve into the mysteries of the highest court in the land. The Supreme Court handed down a handful of important decisions yesterday but left the nation in suspense over the most watched cases of the year: affirmative action, gay marriage and the Voting Rights Act. There's a week left in the high court's term and we wanted to know why the justices always seem to leave the biggest decisions until the very last minute. So we called in NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Good morning, Nina.

NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Why does it happen like that?

TOTENBERG: It just does. I mean, the Supreme Court justices are no different than the rest of us. This is the evening before the exam. Whatever analogy you want to have, everything moves inevitably towards the last time it can possibly happen. And it's exacerbated when, as this year, a lot of the very big cases were argued quite late in the term, essentially March and April.

They have only had a couple of months to be writing these opinions - all except for affirmative action, which was argued in October.

MONTAGNE: Well, does this tell us anything about what goes on behind the scenes?

TOTENBERG: Well, most people think, well, gee, they just vote and then somebody writes down something. That's not how it works. Yes, they vote - tentatively. The writer of the opinion first works on it for at least a month before circulating it, usually. And then there are many as 20 or 30 drafts that circulate before they agree on what the outcome is and what the language is. Because it's going to commit the court and the country to a particular course for a very long time.

And during that time, justices can and do change their mind.

MONTAGNE: Was there ever a time when the justices did all the hard stuff at the beginning?

TOTENBERG: No.

(LAUGHTER)

TOTENBERG: Certainly not in my lifetime. I checked today. Brown versus the Board of Education was decided in the middle of May and it had been reargued. So it was a two-term process. Then you think of the big affirmative action cases in the past. They were all decided in June. Last year's Obamacare decision - late June. All the Guantanamo cases - late June. This is a phenomenon that has gone on essentially forever.

MONTAGNE: Well, you've still got some work ahead of you, Nina. NPR's legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg. Thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: Thank you, Renee.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Glad we finally got around to that story.

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