Do Supreme Court Justices debate cases with each other?

I was wondering if, after hearing the arguments in court, if SCOTUS justices at some point sit down in bull sessions and debate the merits of the cases with each other?

Or do they retire to their chambers, have clerks do some research and then go vote?

They must discuss things with one another, because I’ve wasted time reading a few of their decisions and often the differing opinions will argue with one another. Especially the minority with the majority.

Here is a quote from the Wiki article on Brown v. Board of Education:

Not sure how normal that was but it at least does happen when one side thinks something is vitally important.


My understanding is that they have formal meetings, where they might decide formal issues like who will write the majority opinion, and also toss legal questions around as well. I suspect there might also be some one-on-one debates as well, on important issues like Brown v. Board of Education.

I highly recommend Bob Woodward and Scott Armstrong’s The Brethren, and Jeffrey Toobin’s The Nine, for fascinating behind-closed-doors looks at the Supreme Court in, respectively, the Seventies and today. When the justices visit each other in chambers it’s a big deal because it’s so rare. In the Seventies, memos and draft decisions would flow back and forth from justice to justice, as the outlines of the majority and dissenting opinions would take shape; nowadays, it seems that even that doesn’t happen nearly as much.

The justices’ regular private conferences (no one is allowed in the room except the nine) are pretty cursory, with each person just briefly stating how he or she is going to vote on case after case, and very little if any debate going on. I think it was Justice Thomas who said a few years ago that he was disappointed that there isn’t more intellectual give-and-take among his colleagues when they’re in private.

Interesting coming from a guy who has not said a word on the bench during oral arguments in three or so years.

I find it astonishing and sad that they have so little internal debate on their cases.

Is there some reason for this or is it just ego that none of them would budge off their own opinions so why waste the effort to debate?

Yeah, that seems like a horribly bad idea.

I can see that the judges should think long and hard and research something for awhile BEFORE starting to discussing with each other. But, after that, some serious intellectual exchanges should take place IMO.

What, these guys and gals have never had a moment when they had something figured out then somebody said something and they went :smack: WTF was I thinking?

Kinda seems to me that you’d really want to avoid that in Supreme Court Cases.

It’s probably a reflection of how phenomenally busy they are, the huge tsunamis of paper that sweep over them every day, and their own self-confidence (not to say smugness) in having risen to the very top of the profession.

It’s extremely easy to blame “the media” and see them as bullying people in public life; our conservative brethren among the Dopers bring up “the lib’rul media” on a regular basis. But while the idea of “the media targeting people” is vastly overdone, sometimes there is a basis in fact, or at least in the supposedly targeted individuals’ perception of what’s happening. Justice Thomas’s confirmation and early days on the Court were traumatic for him, and I mean this literally. He was personally profoundly shaken by the vitriol thrown his way. And he has been very reticent in public, even in oral argument, ever since. I do not particularly like the man nor his views, but I cannot help but be sympathetic for how he feels, its cost to him.

Most of the debating will probably take place between the Justices and their interns. They don’t argue amongst themselves probably because they know it’s pretty futile. It’s not like the Justices are seeing these issues for the first time. They have already spent a lot of time dealing with these issues as appellate court judges. By the time they get to the SCOTUS they will have well formulated opinions by then.

A good justice is, among other things, a consensus builder – someone who knows his colleagues’ views and writes with an eye to bringing them into his majority. Taft, Warren, Hughes, Harlan the younger, and Brennan were all past masters at this. I’m not sure who if anyone on today’s court is in their league as consensus builder.

I think you’re right. The battle lines are pretty well-drawn. In fact, I hope that’s a skill which Obama looks for (among others) in selecting Stevens’s successor.

And I’d add John Marshall to your roster of good consensus builders, of course.

I wonder if it’s different with the three judge panels at the Courts of Appeal. Anyone have any insights there?

True enough.

But you dont debate amongst yourselves or exchange points of view to JUST change someones mind. At the very least, it allows you a better chance to cover all YOUR bases as to why YOUR decision is the right one (or why the other decision is wrong).

Yeah, a smart guy will most likely cover all his bases. But if anybody is likely to figure out something the first guy hasnt, its the OTHER equally smart and experienced guy holding the opposite position.

I have interacted with many a smart person (even in their field) that wasnt at least somewhat wrong about something that they were sure about. And, for that matter, I have, on occasion, been wrong about stuff I was pretty darn sure I was on the money about. Much LESS the more subtle things like interesting points of view, various angles of discussion, consequences, interesting analogies blah blah blah…that apparently never occurred to them or myself until discussion time. An this is typically science/engineering/mechanical stuff. I would hazard a guess stuff like law would at least have the potential for being worse.

While I imagine some serious debating amongst the Justices would rarely result in different outcomes than if they just all mostly did their own thing until the vote came, barring BBQ pit style debating where serious ill will is generated, I dont see how a bit more exchange between them does any harm and IMO would likely do some moderate good. The decisions would rarely change, but at least the reasons for and against them would be fleshed out a bit better.

To me, the “they don’t need to debate, because they are so smart/experienced” just smacks a wee bit too much of academic/governmental/positions of power elitism.

I suspect one reason why they would debate with excahnged opinions and drafts is because the complexity and preciseness of the rulings calls for long arguments and very exact wording. Not something you’d want to try to argue off the top of your head, even with decades of experience.

While I have limited sympathy for Clarence Thomas’s general position on issues, I do have to wonder about the claims against him during the hearings; normally a sexually harrassing bully is a pattern of behaviour that (a) is not isolated behaviour and (b) is most often expressed against the more helpless victims in his environment. That his sole major victim is a fairly well-educated lawyer on the way up the ladder is surprising; there should have been a huge parade of ex-secretaries and ex-clerks and receptionists, etc. to testify to the same or worse about him. If the charges were essentially fabricated or strongly misconstrued (to give Anita Hill some benefit of the doubt) then no wonder Thomas had a strong traumatic reaction and has a reluctance to say anything in public.

I, then as now a liberal/progressive on most issues, was hired by a conservative U.S. district court judge as a summer clerk while in law school at least in part because she knew we’d disagree on some if not all issues, and she liked hearing different points of view. Remember Chester Bowles’s dictum during the decision-making process for increasing the U.S. involvement in Vietnam in the mid-Sixties: “Where all think alike, none think very much.”

Fair or not it is the political reality do get beat up during confirmation hearings. I believe prospective candidates are aware of this and choose to go through the hazing ritual to become a member of an exclusive club. Not saying it is nice or desirable but it is what it is.

Further, it is his job to ask questions I would think. To not do so either means he does not believe anyone can provide information that he does not already know or he just does not care. Despite being beat-up in his confirmation hearings that was a long time ago. He’s an adult and he has an important task.

High time he got over it.

It’s one thing to get “bat up” and strongly interrogated over your views in a hearing. It’s another to face outright lies and slander (assuming that’s what ahppened).

Part of the media innuendo backstory of Clarence Thomas is that “he’s not really all that bright” and “out of his league”. Unlikely, he’s a guy that made it before affirmative action was an excuse. He’s not so stupid that he’s well aware that whatever he asks will be doubly analyzed. We saw comments a week or so ago on how some judges were being ridiculed for asking if email was like a pager. What are the odds any of them handled either in their careers? Remember the real George Bush was raked over the coals for being astonished by a supermarket scanner…

If he doesn’t know the answer, oddds are he’s likely to weigh the criticism value to the informational value of a question and decide not to ask it. Do you want the criticism to morph into “he asked this question and produced this decision so he does not really understand”? If he needs a question answered, he has clerks.

I think most of the questions are to see what the lawyers arguing think of a case and respond to questions about their case, or to poke at the weak parts of their arguments. It’s not about actually finding out something.

The more this thread goes on the more the whole process seems a waste of time.

A case should be submitted, each side hands in their arguments, clerks get assigned some research then each justice votes their $0.02.

If there is no point to questioning the attorneys and no point to the justices discussing the cases with each other then in the end it is just whatever opinion each justice holds. Sounds like almost nothing in the process actually sways anyone. Just looks good to go through the democratic motions of a trial that is really a foregone conclusion.

And as for Thomas I reiterate he needs to grow up and move on. Even assuming the whole thing was a pure character assassination he is a Supreme Court justice and his confirmation hearing was near 20 years ago.

And yeah, everyone says something stupid from time to time and yeah SCOTUS justices, like most notable politicians, will be made fun of but hardly a big deal unless the screw-ups become alarmingly common.

Oral argument does make a difference in some cases, several Supreme Court justices have said over the years. And discussions among the justices do result in different emphases or even outcomes in some, although probably very few, cases. I would not discard either. You never know when it’ll count.