Friday, June 29, 2012

Scotusblog's finest hour

As a counterpoint to the bumbling of CNN, Fox et al, the probity and precision of Scotusblog's 6/28/12 liveblog is worth savoring. My emphasis below.

10:07

Amy Howe: 
We have health care opinion.

10:08

Amy Howe: 
Parsing it asap.
10:08

Amy Howe: 
The individual mandate survives as a tax.
10:09

Amy Howe: 
It's very complicated, so we're still figuring it out.
10:10

Kali: 
We are still here. Don't worry.
10:10

Tom: 
So the mandate is constitutional. Chief Justice Roberts joins the left of the Court.


 The individual mandate survives as a tax! That was one of the best moments of my life (I know, I know, get a life...).

The challenge for reporters tearing through the syllabus, of course, was that Roberts spent the first really substantive 400 words ventriloquizing the plaintiffs in holding "that the individual mandate is not a valid exercise of Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause and the Necessary and Proper Clause."  If I had read that unmediated, I know I would have been crushed, not to say rushed.

But on 6/27 Scotusblog's Lyle Denniston warned all comers how tricky it could be to extract the gist of a multi-part ruling quickly:
Supreme Court decisions are issued in a predictable format.  What they say, though, is far from predictable.   And, with the decision expected Thursday in the health care case, figuring out what it says will be complicated by the near-certainty that the Court will not be unanimous.  While an opinion that speaks for a majority — that is, at least five Justices – will be the one that controls the bottom line (what is actually decided), any added opinions may better illuminate or even limit the scope of the outcome or, in fact, help to create multiple outcomes.  Indeed, a case can be decided with less than five Justices agreeing on the reasoning, but at least that many have come together on the bottom line.  That makes it even more important to find out what is in the separate opinions.


Obviously, then, this can be daunting, even for one who has experience in reading Supreme Court opinions, but especially for someone encountering an opinion for the first time.   Fortunately for both regular and new readers, there is almost always a very helpful and much shorter discussion of what has been decided, and it comes out with the opinion itself — indeed, it makes up the opening pages of the  document.  It is sometimes called the “headnote,” but the Court calls it a “syllabus.” 
In this case, the syllabus itself took a memorable twist.  









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