30 March 2012

Supreme Court Justices Meet to Vote on Health Care

WASHINGTON (AP) — While the rest of us have to wait until June, the justices of the Supreme Court will know the likely outcome of the historic health care case by the time they go home this weekend.

After months of anticipation, thousands of pages of briefs and more than six hours of arguments, the justices will vote on the fate of the President's health care overhaul in under an hour Friday morning. They will meet in a wood-paneled conference room on the court's main floor. No one else will be present.

In the weeks after this meeting, individual votes can change. Even who wins can change, as the justices read each other's draft opinions and dissents.

But Friday's vote, which each justice probably will record and many will keep for posterity, will be followed soon after by the assignment of a single justice to write a majority opinion, or in a case this complex, perhaps two or more justices to tackle different issues. That's where the hard work begins, with the clock ticking toward the end of the court's work in early summer.

The Friday conference also is not a debate, there will be plenty of time for the back-and-forth in dueling opinions that could follow.

It will be the first time the justices gather as a group to discuss the case. Even they do not always know what the others are thinking when they enter the conference room adjacent to the Chief Justice's office.

By custom, they shake hands. Then the Chief Justice will take his seat at the head of a rectangular table. The longest serving judge among them, will be at the other end. The other seven justices also sit according to seniority, the four most junior on one side across from the other three.

No one's vote counts more than the others', but because they speak in order of seniority, it will become clear fairly quickly what will become of the health care overhaul.

That's because the Chief Justice speaks first, followed by the next two most senior judges. If the three men hold a common view, the health care overhaul probably is history. If they don't, it probably survives.

If the Chief Justice is in the majority, he will assign the main opinion, and in a case of this importance, he may well write it himself, several former law clerks said. If the Chief Justice is a dissenter, the senior justice in the majority assigns the opinion.

The court won't issue its ruling in a case until drafts of majority opinions and any dissents have circulated among the justices, changes have been suggested and either accepted or rejected.

No one will know precisely when decisions on particular cases will be coming, until perhaps the Chief Justice ends a court session in late June by announcing the next meeting will be the last until October. Then it's a safe bet that whatever hasn't been decided will be on the last day. And decisions in the biggest cases very often aren't announced until that last day of the term.

Supreme Court opinions rarely find their way to the public before they are read in the marble courtroom, although the court inadvertently posted opinions and orders on its website about a half hour too soon in December.

The last apparent security breach occurred more than 30 years ago when a reporter for ABC News, informed viewers that the court planned to issue a particular opinion the following day. The Chief Justice accused an employee in the printing shop of tipping the reporter and had the employee transferred to a different job.

Sometimes, though, the justices themselves manage to let people know something big is coming.

On May 17, 1954, the attorney general, secretary of state and Nina Warren, wife of the chief justice, were in the courtroom when Earl Warren read the historic, unanimous opinion in Brown v. Board of Education outlawing school segregation.

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