WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court issued the first ruling of its nine-month term, which began in October, more than a month later than usual on Monday.
The court’s first opinion was written by conservative Justice Amy Coney Barrett, with the justices unanimously ruling against Navy veteran Adolfo Arellano in a technical dispute over disability benefits. Without issuing a written ruling, the court dismissed a second case involving the scope of attorney-client privilege.
The justices held a formal session to deliver rulings for the first time since the Covid pandemic broke out in March 2020, with Barrett reading a summary of her 11-page decision from the bench.
“This is not a case in which competing interpretations are equally plausible; it is one in which Congress’ choice is clear,” she wrote, concluding that Arellano’s benefits, which began in 2011, could not be backdated to the day after his discharge in 1981.
Only five of the nine justices were present. The absences included Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch, Samuel Alito, and Elena Kagan. Although, prior to the pandemic, it was not uncommon for all of the justices to be present in court on days when rulings were issued but oral arguments were not held.
Because the court term lasts from October to June, the first opinions are typically issued in November or December. They are usually on minor, uncontroversial cases, such as the Arellano case, where the justices are unanimous. They are usually only a few pages long.
The most contentious cases on the court, in which the justices are divided ideologically and trade barbs in their written opinions, are usually not released until the end of June.
According to Adam Feldman, who tracks Supreme Court statistics, this term marks the first time since 1917 that the court has not issued a ruling by the beginning of December.
Many reasons were given, including the fact that the court had fewer cases than usual and an increasing number of consequential decisions in emergency applications on the “shadow docket.” Typically, these cases are resolved without oral argument and, in some cases, without a written opinion.
This term has also seen a number of high-profile cases, including a conservative attempt to end the use of race in college admissions and a case that could weaken the landmark Voting Rights Act.
The investigation into the leak last year of a draught of an opinion showing the court was likely to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade abortion rights may also have had an impact on the justices. The court announced on Thursday that the leaker had not been identified and that new measures to improve internal security are being implemented.
According to the investigation report, dozens of court employees have access to draught opinions as they are circulated throughout the building for review and amendment by justices and their staff before they are released to the public.
Following the leak, Justice Clarence Thomas stated publicly, according to The Washington Post, that it had harmed trust among the justices.
“And when you lose that trust, especially in the institution where I work, it fundamentally changes the institution. You start looking over your shoulder “He stated.