Release of opinions may be least dramatic part of this Supreme Court term

Written by William C. Duncan

June 15, 2022

Stephen Field was the first justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from California and the third appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. Until recently, Justice Field was the only justice to have been targeted in an assassination attempt.

In 1888, while on court business in California, Field:

became embroiled in a bizarre personal feud with litigants in his courtroom that nearly cost him his life. The complicated imbroglio began when David S. Terry, former chief justice of the California Supreme Court and an old enemy of Field’s, appeared in Field’s court with his wife, Sarah Hill, in a dispute concerning an alleged secret marriage contract between Hill and the late William Sharon. In response to several comments made in open court by Field about Hill’s character, Terry and Hill noisily objected, and Field promptly held them in contempt and sentenced them to jail. As a result, Terry waged a bitter vendetta against Field, and Field was advised not to resume his circuit court duties in California.

In 1889 Field did return to California, accompanied by a bodyguard, Deputy Marshal David Neagle. By chance, Field and Neagle encountered Terry and Hill in a railway station restaurant. When Terry lunged at Field, Neagle drew a gun in his defense and shot Terry to death.

Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, a second justice became the target of attempted murder.

The court’s current term has become historically significant, but for mostly negative reasons. Perhaps it is good that the term is coming to a close.

There is still much for the court to do, though – it has not yet released opinions on dozens of cases that it heard this term. One of those is the extremely controversial abortion decision, and security has been heightened at the court.

The justices, however, won’t necessarily be at the court when the opinions are released.

Since the beginning of the Supreme Court, the custom for issuing opinions has been that the justice who wrote “the majority or principal opinion [would] summarize[] the opinion from the bench during a regularly scheduled session of the Court.” In some cases, a justice might read from a dissenting opinion, which added a little to the drama of the release.

That has changed in the last few years due to COVID precautions: “the opinions are currently being released only on the court’s website; no one takes the bench to read a summary of the opinion (or any dissents), and there is no live audio or video of the opinion release. The court posts opinions on its website in 10-minute intervals, beginning at 10 a.m. EDT.”

So, any drama in the opinions will be confined to the written word. Of course, people upset at the court’s opinions may still want to vent their anger at the Supreme Court building – hence the heightened security – but the release of the opinions themselves will be largely unexciting events.

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