Washington — Chief Justice John Roberts clutched a sheaf of papers when he and his black-robed colleagues ascended the mahogany bench on Thursday for one of the last days of the U.S. Supreme Court term.
Was he ready to announce a ruling in any of the four most anticipated cases? Two involve same-sex marriage, one the 1965 Voting Rights Act and one a university’s use of race in admissions. As Justice Elena Kagan began reading the first of three opinions that would be issued, Roberts kept looking down at his papers, reading over them and rubbing his forehead, his jaw taut. That only heightened the tension for spectators.
But when his turn came to deliver the last of the morning’s opinions, there was no climax, only a cliffhanger. The justices departed the bench without resolving the four blockbusters and leaving a total of 11 cases still to be announced on what is likely to be the last week of the term, beginning on Monday.
Lawyer Theodore Olson, who represents challengers to California’s ban on same-sex marriage, joked afterward that the wait was a form of torture.
The one-time U.S. solicitor general, who has argued 60 cases before the Supreme Court over the years, said he was used to the anticipation at the end of June, chalking it up to “hard cases” and “human nature.” The two same-sex marriage cases were argued in March, relatively late in the term.
Despite the mystery over how the nine justices will decide the big cases, there is no real mystery about the delay. Late June at the Supreme Court is crunch time, as the justices - not unlike college students finishing term papers late into the night - push up against their self-imposed, end-of-June deadline.
In 2003, the last time the justices had college affirmative action and gay rights together on the docket, decisions came on June 23 and June 26, respectively. Last year, their decision on the constitutionality of the 2010 healthcare law signed by President Barack Obama came on the last day, June 28, before the justices recessed for the summer.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has called June “flood season.”
Many court watchers expected a decision to come much sooner on the affirmative action case because it was argued during the first month of the term, on Oct. 10