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The Supreme Court has a lot to do and isn't doing it quickly

Posted January 30, 2020 7:26 a.m. EST

— By the end of June, as the Supreme Court reaches its grand finale and issues the last flurry of opinions before fleeing for the summer, the justices will have changed the lives of those impacted by its decisions, such as undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ individuals, supporters of gun rights and even President Donald Trump.

But so far, as the midway point of the term approaches, the public has been left with hardly any clues concerning the direction of the court. That's because the justices appear to be moving more slowly than in recent years, having issued only four opinions since October -- a 50% decrease from this time last year.

It's a term for the ages, where the court's newly solidified conservative majority -- serving its first full term together -- may signal how fast and how far the court is going to move on controversial issues such as abortion.

But court watchers are left wondering what is taking so long.

Chief Justice John Roberts has been doing double duty this month, presiding over the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump, but the other justices have no such extracurricular obligations.

"The pace of the court's output so far this term is a reminder that, whatever today's political cycle might be, the court moves on its own schedule and its own pace," said lawyer Joshua Geltzer of Georgetown Law, who is waiting for justices to act on the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era immigration program, among other cases.

Indeed, Roberts often points out that the architect of the Supreme Court placed bronze tortoises at the base of the court's exterior lampposts to symbolize the judiciary's commitment to constant-- but deliberate -- progress.

These days, however, the tortoise is at a standstill, and the justices have left for a winter recess and won't return until late February. (They can issue emergency rulings and orders remotely if needed.)

So far, they have heard cases concerning LGBTQ rights, the Second Amendment and DACA. They are also untangling a messy case having to do with Puerto Rico's financial condition, as well as another related to the Bridgegate political scandal that occurred when Chris Christie served as governor of New Jersey.

In March, the justices will take on a bitter dispute about a Louisiana abortion access law and will deal with the President's attempts to shield his financial documents. They are also pondering whether to take up Obamacare. Again.

To be sure, the justices have held arguments and cast preliminary votes behind closed doors, and opinion drafts are likely ricocheting between chambers. They've agreed to take up big issues concerning the contraceptive coverage mandate and so called "faithless" presidential electors.

But while they have considered other petitions, including a series of cases concerning religious liberty, they have yet to announce whether they will grant those cases or let lower court opinions stand.

All the while, the public at large has seen more of Roberts on camera during the Senate impeachment trial than it has during his entire 15-year tenure on the court.

On his home turf, away from the cameras, the action is mostly behind the scenes.

The silence could mean the justices are struggling, searching for narrow areas of agreement. Or the chief might be purposely working to keep the court out of the current political glare. He could simply be distracted by the hours and hours of work he's had to put in across the street, where his attention to detail and legendary preparation have been on full display.

Or it could be something else. Normally, it's the unanimous, low-profile cases that are the first to emerge. This term, there aren't as many of those. Instead, the docket is chock-full of high-profile cases that will touch the nerves of an ideologically divided court.

By the end of June, with the presidential election in high gear, the court will reach a defining moment. The chief -- the man who sits at the middle -- will likely have cast the key swing vote in some cases. The public will learn more about the jurisprudence of Trump's nominees. The liberals will have chosen a path forward -- maybe even attracting a conservative vote on one or two hot-button cases.

And the country, by the end of the term, just as another election gears up, will have its first full glimpse of why elections matter.

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