Technically, the Supreme Court term begins each year on the first Monday in October. And it does, for the purpose of assigning case numbers and the first argument of the term. In reality, it begins with the "Long Conference." The Long Conference reflects that there are four unofficial parts to the Supreme Court Term (described in more detail as an add-on at the end of the post).
The essential task of the Long Conference is to dispose of three-months worth of pending applications for review and to begin the process of filling the Winter/Spring argument calendar. Before the Supreme Court concluded its work on opinions in June, they accepted 42 cases for argument. The fall argument calendar contains thirty-six of these cases. In theory, that leaves six cases (because of the unusual posture of one of the cases actually five cases) to be argued in the Spring. However, there are twenty-three days of argument between January and April. At the typical rate of two cases per argument day, that means the Supreme Court needs another forty or forty-one cases. Of most significance, the Supreme Court needs at least five more cases for January. (The sheer number of cases for the Long Conference creates a perception among lawyers that petitioners want to delay filing their cases to assure that it is heard on one of the later October or November or December conferences while respondents try to extend the deadlines on their responses to delay their cases from a June conference to the Long Conference.)
At the present time, the carry-over cases (and the number of carry-over cases indirectly influences how many cases "must" be accepted in October, November, and December to fill the calendar) include some major cases. In one case from Massachusetts. the Court is being asked to reconsider the permissible scope of state laws governing protests near abortion clinics. On the other side of the coin, the Court is also potentially hearing a case from Oklahoma on the validity of Oklahoma's restrictions on the use of the "morning after" pill -- potentially because the Supreme Court has asked the Oklahoma courts for a more detailed explanation of the actually scope of Oklahoma's law. The Supreme Court also has a case on the proof required before a defendant convicted of possessing or distributing child pornography can be ordered to pay restitution to the victim of that child pornography. Lastly, the Supreme Court will consider the meaning of the recess appointment clause.
While we will not know for sure until after Monday, the most significant of the cases are the challenges to the first batch of regulations on greenhouse gases. Given the closeness of the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA, there is a good chance that some of the Justices will want to take this case to undo these regulations.
While not yet set for any given conference, applications about the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that employers must provide insurance coverage for employees that includes contraceptive coverage are now pending. Given that there is a conflict in the lower courts about whether this requirement violates the First Amendment rights of the owners and management of these businesses, it is likely that the Supreme Court will take at least one of these cases. Whichever case is accepted will probably be set for argument in March or April.
For the background referred to in the above discussion:
The first part runs from the Long Conference until about mid-January. This part is primarily about two things: hearing arguments and filling the remainder of the argument calendar. As noted in the last part, the Supreme Court holds seven two-week argument sessions with arguments on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. In theory, that is 42 argument days, but some of those theoretical argument days fall on federal holidays. This year, that eliminates three days, leaving a total of 39 argument days. The rules give the parties seventy-five days between the acceptance of a case for argument and the filing of the respondent's brief. That creates a rolling deadline for accepting cases for each particular argument session. The fall arguments need to be accepted before the term begins. January cases need to be accepted by the end of the October sitting, February cases need to be accepted by the end of the November sitting, March cases need to be accepted by the end of the December sitting, and -- depending on the timing of the sittings -- the April cases need to be accepted at some point in the January sittings.
Depending on the number of carry-over cases accepted in the previous term, the Supreme Court "needs" to take 8-10 cases per month during this period. "Need" is based on the assumption that the Supreme Court intends to have two cases per day of argument. The Supreme Court has in past years shown that, while two cases may be the desired number per day, it really does not have a firm target of how many cases it will take per term. The desire to fill the docket makes it slightly more likely that a case will be accepted during this time frame even though, overall, the Supreme Court only grants arguments on about 1% of the applications. Excluding the cases accepted in the Long Conference, typically the Supreme Court needs to grant 8-9 applications per sitting during these four months to fill up the rest of the calendar. Since the Court will probably accept no more than 6-7 cases from the Long Conference, that means an average of 2-3 cases per month for the three months when the Court was recessed.
Typically, during this first part of the term, the Court holds a conference on the Friday before the first argument of the session and on the Fridays of each argument week. (There are some exceptions, the Long Conference is being held on Monday, and the conference which would otherwise be held on the Friday after Thanksgiving for the start of the December sitting will be held on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving). Because of the short gap between the grant of the case for argument and the argument, the Court tends to announce the cases that are being accepted for argument upon the conclusion of each conference. The Monday after each conference, the Supreme Court issues a much longer order list with the cases that have been rejected.
The second part runs from the January sitting until the end of the April sitting. As any new cases accepted will not be argued until the following fall, the grants of cases are included in the Monday order. Additionally, opinions start coming regularly on any of the three argument days or with the Monday orders after the last conference of the sitting. The third part begins after the two-week rest period following the April sitting. During the third part of the term, the conference is moved up to Thursday with orders announced the following Monday. While opinions are issued on Monday, they can also be issued any day of the week. This part tends to end the last week in June but when it ends depends upon how long it takes the Supreme Court to finish up all opinions. The cases accepted during these two parts tend to be set for argument in the Fall of the following term. Depending on where Veteran's Day falls on the calendar, the Supreme Court "needs" to accept thirty-two to thirty-four cases during these two parts. Any "extra" cases reduce the number that need to be accepted in the Fall (an average of 6-7 per month).
The Long Conference represents the end of the fourth part of the term which runs from the end of June until the end of September. During this part of the term, the Supreme Court has a wrap-up conference at the start to dispose of whatever cases were held pending decisions but then holds no conference until the end of this period (the Long Conference). Barring something unusual, the only orders during this time are emergency orders (e.g. requests for stays of execution on lower court decisions) and routine procedural matters.