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U.S. Supreme Court

SCOTUS Notebook: Interest Groups Now Gear Up for Thursday’s Finale

Posted Jun 26, 2012 8:40 AM CDT
By Mark Walsh

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Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. announced yesterday that the final day of the term for the U.S. Supreme Court will be Thursday. That removes much of the uncertainty and anxiety that have gripped court watchers over the last few weeks.

Now interest groups can do their last-minute honing of their prepared reactions to the Affordable Care Act ruling. Activists can plan to convene outside the court. The justices, meanwhile, can confidently know that they can get out of town after Thursday’s decisions and a final private conference in the afternoon.

Among their reported summer destinations for some of them: Malta, Austria, Italy, and perhaps most daring of all, Hawaii, for the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ August conference, which has been under fire from lawmakers. Two Republican senators have complained that the cost of holding the conference there was too excessive. The court is based in San Francisco and includes Hawaii in its jurisdiction.

Yesterday’s session answered another key question that has revolved around the health-care decision: Whether the justices would devote an opinion day to that case alone, given its magnitude. The answer is no. There are three decisions remaining: the Affordable Care Act case (Department of Health and Human Services v. Florida and related cases, which everyone has been counting as one, even though it could yet yield separate, multiple decisions); First American Financial Corp. v. Edwards, a case about standing to sue over real estate settlement services, which was argued in December; and United States v. Alvarez, about the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act.

Recent experience suggests that the health care decision should be the last one announced. The chief justice does possess a flair for the dramatic at this time of year, and it is hard to imagine the court announcing the health care ruling in one breath and then expecting everyone to sit around for an opinion settling a burning jurisdictional issue involving the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act. That suggests the health care decision is in the hands of one of the court’s more senior members, since opinions are announced in reverse order of seniority. That doesn’t reveal much because there are senior members of both the court’s conservative and liberal blocs who could be the ones putting the finishing touches on term’s biggest opinion.

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When the court met yesterday to issue decisions in Miller v. Alabama, striking down mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers, and Arizona v. United States, with the court’s mixed-bag decision on Arizona’s immigration law, there was one group of spectators who considered themselves fortunate to be in the courtroom on a day with such major rulings.

Some 20 teachers participating in the American Bar Association’s Summer Institute for Teachers were at the high court on the second day of their weeklong seminar, which is co-sponsored by the Federal Judiciary Center.

“It was absolutely a big day to be there,” said Kat Chrisopoulos-Vergos, a social studies teacher at Trillium Academy in Taylor, Mich. “When I got the itinerary for the week, I was quite excited to see that we would be hearing Supreme Court decisions.”

The Summer Institute is one of at least two programs for teachers that convene in Washington around the end of the court’s term. The Supreme Court Historical Society co-sponsors a summer institute with Street Law, a nonprofit group that develops education programs around issues of law, democracy, and human rights. The teachers in that program typically get to visit the Supreme Court for opinion days as well.

The ABA program, meanwhile, includes in-depth instruction and discussion of a handful of notable lower court cases, such as the Chicago 7 conspiracy trial that grew out of protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The group is also visiting the U.S. District Court in Washington, where one never knows whether a politician or other luminary may be on trial.

But the highlight is the Supreme Court visit. Karen Martin, who teaches U.S. government and law at Edison High School in Alexandria, Va., said the juvenile sentencing and Arizona immigration cases were both ones she had discussed with her students.

“I’m a law-related education groupie, and my students get a lot of their information from looking at Supreme Court majority and dissenting opinions,” she said.

Both Martin and Chrisopoulos-Vergos appreciated the rare opportunity to witness dissenting justices deliver some of their opinions from the bench. In the juvenile-sentencing case, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. delivered a harsh dissent to Justice Elena Kagan’s majority opinion. In the immigration case, Justice Antonin Scalia went on for some 10 minutes, and said the majority’s decision “boggles the mind.”

“That was something we discussed as a group afterward—we were surprised by some of the language they used in dissent,” said Chrisopoulos-Vergos.

The teachers said they can’t wait to get back to their students in the fall and share their experiences.

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