Court Battles

Supreme Court is unusually late with first opinion of term

The Supreme Court handed down its first opinion of the term on Monday, ruling that a veteran who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not eligible for retroactive disability benefits after he missed a statutory window.

The ruling in some ways marked a return to normal, with the justices resuming the pre-pandemic tradition of announcing opinions live from the bench.

But it also came unusually late. The decision marks the slowest-ever release of a term’s first opinion, according to Empirical SCOTUS author Adam Feldman.

Legal observers suggest that new policies following last year’s leak of a draft opinion may have contributed to the delay, while some attribute it to the makeup of this term’s calendar.

Monday’s unanimous ruling followed a tradition of beginning the term’s opinions with a relatively noncontroversial case, a distinction from the court’s recent contention.

Since the last time justices convened in-person to announce an opinion in early 2020, the Supreme Court has shifted rightward and faced an extraordinary leak of its draft majority opinion overturning federal abortion protections.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett, who authored Monday’s opinion, participated in a live decision announcement for the first time on Monday.

The nine justices sided with the government’s position that veterans can’t receive retroactive disability benefits if they miss a one-year application window.

The case involved Adolfo Arellano, a U.S. Navy veteran who suffers from PTSD linked to trauma from his deployment to the Persian Gulf during the Iranian hostage crisis.

Although he missed the window to receive disability benefits retroactive to his discharge date, Arellano argued that the law is subject to equitable tolling, a doctrine that allows for extensions in extraordinary circumstances. Arellano’s attorneys argued he couldn’t meet the deadline because of his mental condition.

The justices ruled that Congress specifically provided that courts should not grant those types of extensions for the provision.

“It would be inconsistent with this comprehensive scheme for an adjudicator to extend effective dates still further through the doctrine of equitable tolling,” Coney Barrett wrote for the unanimous majority.

The court also on Monday dismissed a case about attorney-client privilege as “improvidently granted.” The justices heard arguments in the case earlier this month, which involved when communications intertwined with both legal and non-legal advice should be privileged.

Monday marked the first time the court has convened for an opinion without the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was famous for wearing her bejeweled collar when delivering commanding dissents. 

Monday also marks the court’s first decision on its merits docket since Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, who replaced Justice Stephen Breyer, joined the bench. 

The court is likely to leave its more controversial rulings — including those involving affirmative action, the environment and election law — until later this year.

The nine-justice panel is progressing through its term in the wake of last year’s leak of the draft majority opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which upheld Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and overturned Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

An investigation did not conclusively identify the leaker after sweeping efforts, and the justices are now weighing a number of recommendations to better control the circulation of draft opinions.

Tags Amy Coney Barrett Amy Coney Barrett Ketanji Brown Jackson PTSD Ruth Bader Ginsburg Supreme Court veteran disability benefits
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