At U.S. Supreme court, when justices take the bench, it's story hour

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 22, 2015 1:12 PM

By Joan Biskupic

(Reuters) - In these final days of the U.S. Supreme Court's annual session, people can get the justices' decisions through the court's website, its paper handouts, or, if in the courtroom itself, with a suspenseful tale.

The justices read excerpts of their opinions from the tall mahogany bench. For some among the nine, these renditions rise to an art form, a compelling way to relate facts and explain the law. The recitations usually last about five minutes apiece but can reveal a justice's personality, sense of humor, or, in a dissenting opinion, temper.

They also can offer insight into what a justice thinks is most important in a decision.

When Justice Elena Kagan announced the decision in a patent case on Monday, she said it tested a 50-year-old court ruling. She then paused and said in her steady Manhattan-tinged voice, "It's a story that happens to begin with Spider-Man."

Kagan told the packed courtroom how inventor Stephen Kimble had obtained a patent on a toy that shot off pressurized foam string that looked like webs.

In the end, Kagan said, the court stuck to precedent, which said royalty payments need not be made after a patent has expired and meant Kimble could not claim royalties from Walt Disney Co's Marvel Entertainment.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who like Kagan revels in a tale, explained a case about Fifth Amendment "takings" law by describing the California scene of an incident triggered by a federal program intended to stabilize agriculture prices.

At eight o'clock one morning, Roberts said, federal trucks waited outside a family-run raisin-growing business to pick up raisins that were supposed to have been set aside for the government. Owners Marvin and Laura Horne refused and were fined.

As Roberts neared the climax of his story, he said the government had suggested if raisin growers objected to setting aside a portion, they could plant different crops.

Enough's Enough
Walter E. Williams

"Let them sell wine," Roberts said, would likely not work, as similar retorts have not throughout history.

The court ruled the government must compensate the Hornes if it takes the raisins.

The justices next ascend the bench on Thursday. Among the rulings awaited are disputes over President Barack Obama's healthcare law and a test of a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

If this term ends the way most do, the justices on the winning side of a ruling will not be the only ones speaking from the bench. In the tensest cases, dissenting justices make sure their voices are heard, often carrying on longer than those who prevailed.