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How the Supreme Court will reveal its healthcare ruling

June 28, 2012|By Timothy M. Phelps
  • The U.S. Supreme Court building.
The U.S. Supreme Court building. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty…)

WASHINGTON -- Just before 10 a.m. EDT today, the nine justices of the Supreme Court will be summoned by a buzzer to the robing room behind the court bench. No matter how acrimonious the fight over the healthcare decision they are about to announce, tradition calls for them to shake hands with one another.

Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller began that little ceremony in the late 1800s to note that differences of opinion do not preclude the justices’ overall harmony of purpose.

That sense of harmony may be short-lived if the court is badly split on what may be the most significant ruling on an act of Congress in more than half a century.

At precisely 10 a.m. Pamela Talkin, the court marshal, wearing a formal cutaway, will pound a gavel and announce, “The honorable, the chief justice and the associate justices of the Supreme Court of the United States.” As the audience stands, the justices will take their seats in order of seniority, with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the center and the most junior justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor, at the far ends.

A few minutes later, the justices will announce the answer to one of the best-kept secrets in Washington. At the end of March, after oral arguments on the healthcare case, the justices took a preliminary vote, but with few exceptions in history the outcome of such votes remains known only to the justices, their clerks and a small number of court personnel. President Obama and his White House staff will most likely read the decision online on the court’s website, supremecourt.gov., and listen, just like the general public, to media reports to find out what the court has decided.

Generally, the public does not even know which decisions the court will announce on any particular day. We know today is the day for the healthcare decision only because it’s the final day in the court’s term. While virtually all of public Washington waits with bated breath, the justices probably will start by announcing a rather droll case about the constitutionality of a law concerning real estate settlements.

Probably next up will be a more interesting case about whether a law making it a crime to lie about having received certain military medals violates the right of free speech.

As reporters, lawyers and a few lucky members of the public listen in the courtroom, other journalists will be waiting anxiously in the media room. As each opinion is announced from the bench by the justice who wrote the majority opinion, members of the court’s staff hand out the opinions to the reporters downstairs.

The healthcare case, which may be announced by Chief Justice Roberts, will probably be the last, and could take quite a bit of time if some justices choose to read parts of any dissents from the bench.

When the session is called to a close, the action will shift to the sidewalk and plaza in front of the building, where lawyers and other parties to the cases traditionally go to give their spin on what has occurred inside.

We’ll discuss the decision and its implications in a live Web chat at 9:30 a.m. PDT.

tim.phelps@latimes.com

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