Slate has an article today asking whether the Supreme Court really should be taking the summer off:
Either way, the summer recess comes with some significant costs. Because the justices do not meet to decide whether to grant or deny review in cases during the summer months, thousands of legal petitions pile up during their absence. The court plows through this backlog at their first conference (aptly referred to as the “long conference”) in the last week of September. But they obviously cannot give these petitions the same consideration as those that arrive later in the term. (For this reason, savvy appellate attorneys know that it is best to avoid filing petitions over the summer if they can.)
The impending summer recess can also force the court to rush decisions without taking the time to articulate their reasoning, as at least one scholar argues occurred in the Pentagon Papers case—a momentous case with serious national security implications that was decided in a three-paragraph, unsigned opinion in late June. The summer break was behind the timing of this past term’s health care decision. As was widely reported, a decision had to be made by the end of June because of Chief Justice Roberts’ Malta trip in the first week of July.
When pressing issues arise during the recess, the matter is often handled by a single justice “in chambers” who must make important decisions about whether to grant stays, injunctions, or extensions without consulting with his or her absent colleagues. For example, Justice William Douglas issued an “in chambers” order in August 1973, which put a stop to military operations in Cambodia. He explained that he would normally have referred this question to the full court, but the summer recess made that “impossible.”
The three-month break is particularly galling at a time when the Supreme Court decides fewer cases than any other court in modern times. In recent years, the court has heard an average of about 80 cases a term, which is half the number they heard 20 years ago and makes up fewer than 1 percent of the approximately 10,000 review petitions they receive. The rest of the federal judiciary does not get the same extended summer vacation, and they handle a great deal more cases. It is also a little disconcerting that many of the justices use the time off to generate outside income. Shouldn’t their time be filled by the job they are paid (by all of us year-round working taxpayers) to do?