Opening Day

By Clare Cushman
Scotus Scoop: Opening Day, 1939 Term

The justices dressed up on opening day of the Supreme Court term on October 2, 1939 to pay a call on President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House after adjourning their morning session in the Courtroom. (Justice James C. McReynolds is absent and Attorney General Frank Murphy is at right)

Each year in September the chief justice traditionally sent a letter to the president announcing the date when the Supreme Court would begin its new term. In the early days of the nation this was an important communication between the judicial and executive branch about when the high court would be open for business. As the justices journeyed from their hometowns to the nation’s capital by horseback and carriage in hazardous wintry conditions, or were often too ill to travel, assembling a quorum was not a given. When did the Court’s start date become fixed and this communique from the chief justice to the president become purely ceremonial?

Congress—which mandates the Supreme Court’s start date by law–set the date as the First Monday in October in 1917. 104 years later, that is still opening day. But between 1789 and 1917 the start date of the term changed quite a bit. Originally, Congress created two terms, one in February and one in August. In 1802 Congress abolished the August session and in 1827 it moved the Court’s start day from February to the first Monday in January. To accommodate a rising caseload, in 1844 the opening day was pushed back to the first Monday in December, and then in 1873 to the second Monday in October. When Congress passed a new judicial code in 1916 which effectively added to the Supreme Court’s burdensome docket, it moved opening day back a week to lengthen the term for the justices.

The business that the justices conduct on opening day has also evolved–from ceremonial to substantive. Until the 1960s, the day was set aside for administrative matters: admitting attorneys to the Supreme Court bar, welcoming a new justice, paying tribute to a departed colleague, and announcing the arrival of a new officer of the Court. But the justices did not hear oral argument. Then, on September 26, 1976 Chief Justice Warren E. Burger sent a letter to President Gerald Ford announcing that the term would start on October 4 as expected, but that the justices’ first conference would henceforth take place the last week of September to accommodate the expanding volume of business. This change allowed the Court to regularly schedule cases to be heard on the First Monday of October. Accordingly, this October 4 the justices will appear in the Courtroom (after a long absence due to the pandemic) and get right down to the business of hearing oral argument.

Published: October 4, 2021