I am wondering whether there is any formal (I could not find one) or informal (e. g. custom) limit on the time that the U. S. Supreme Court can take from the date when a case enters the docket (alternatively: from the time certiorari is granted) to the date when it renders a decision. Could a case theoretically remain on the docket for years before it is decided?

Do the terms have any significance for this question - i. e. would it be strange if the court grants certiorari this term but only decides the case on its merits next term?

  • There's certainly been cases of very fast decisions (for example, Bush v Gore) but I can't think of any they've specifically dragged out.
    – corsiKa
    Nov 21, 2015 at 20:39
  • I know of a US District Court case in which the judge took several years to rule. I do not know if the Supreme Court operates under different rules.
    – user3270
    Nov 22, 2015 at 0:22
  • 2
    @user3270 The nature of the Supreme Court makes that unlikely. A trial court needs to do things like have both sides gather evidence and present it in court. The Supreme Court isn't there to hear a full case; they resolve a few specific questions of law, deferring to the trial court on the facts of the case. The Supreme Court occasionally acts as a trial court, although under different rules than when they're an appellate court.
    – cpast
    Nov 22, 2015 at 1:37

2 Answers 2


There have been instances where the US Supreme Court has held over cases to the next term, and instances where they ordered a case re-argued in the next term. Brown vs Board of Education was a particularly well known case that was reargued. I believe that such occasions are rare, and that the court makes a significant effort to decide each case in the same term where certiorari is granted.

Once exception is when the Court has a vacancy and is waiting fora new Justice to be confirmed, and the Justices in office are tied. Then cases with 4-4 splits are often held and re-argued.

More often, the Justices decide, after granting certiorari, that this was a mistake, and dismiss the case altogether. The phrase used is that the writ is "dismissed as improvidently granted" or "DIGed". This has the same ultimate effect as if certiorari had never been granted -- the lower court decision is left standing, and no Supreme Court precedent is created. This is still fairly rare.

To the best of my knowledge there is no rule requiring decision within any specific time, but I have never heard of a case held over for more than one term.

  • 1
    I think it's in some ways too bad the court isn't more willing to dismiss cases as improvidently granted in cases where a party fails to make what should have been that party's best arguments, since the result is that a decision may be made based upon the argument that wasn't made, but which ends up being binding even against parties who, because of different underlying facts, wouldn't have the same arguments available to them.
    – supercat
    Aug 14, 2021 at 18:36
  • 1
    @supercat My understanding is that a DIG does not normally happen because of poor arguments. Most often it happens when the Justices cannot agree om what do do with a case, where there is no majority, or when a majority wants to avoid making a decision for some reason. It can also happen when a number of justices think a case is to trivial to bother with. Read the sections of The Brethren where such dismissals are discussed, for one source. Aug 14, 2021 at 18:55
  • If the Supreme Court cannot honestly find in favor of a particular party based purely on the arguments that they actually made, but also cannot honestly say with any certainty that they would be unlikely to have found in favor of that party had they made the best available arguments, they shouldn't issue any kind of precedential ruling since the improperly framed arguments would cause any precedents that might result to be improperly framed as well.
    – supercat
    Aug 15, 2021 at 7:27
  • @supercat The US Supreme count does not limit itself to the arguments of the parties, and often decides cases on grounds not emphasized, or even not raised, by the parties. These may include theories brought forward by Amici, or by one of the Justices. This has been true from the start. I won't say that poor argument has no effect. But it does not have the kind of overriding effect you seem to think. Particularly in the modern court, where multiple Amicus briefs are common on all major issues, poor argument does not seem to be a major factor. Aug 15, 2021 at 14:28
  • Consider a case like U.S. v. Miller. The Supreme Court noted in its decision that the military utility of short-barreled shotguns was not within judicial notice, and so it could not quash the indictment of the late Jack Miller on the basis of such utility. Perhaps the Court could have in its remand made explicit what factual determinations a jury would be required to make to find that a particular type of weapon was protected by the Second Amendment, but it should have also allowed for pre-trial factual findings based upon evidence like government purchase records whose credibility...
    – supercat
    Aug 15, 2021 at 20:39

Can the U. S. Supreme Court take as much time as it wants until it renders a decision?


It is customary for the U.S. Supreme Court to try to resolve all of the case it hears in a term in the same term, but no court rule, statute, or constitutional provision compels it to do so, and sometimes it does not.

Often the U.S. Supreme Court will seek to rule quickly when failing to do so would render its decision moot (in furtherance of its capacity to legally influence an outcome). But other times it will deliberate delay deciding a pending case that is about to become moot which is called decision making via the "shadow docket."

Despite the inability of anyone to sanction the U.S. Supreme Court for delays, it is actually considerably more prompt than many lower courts (which also have more complicated tasks as more issues are pending before them in the same case simultaneously).

For example, the oldest case decided by the Colorado Court of Appeals on the completely ordinary day of August 12, 2021 was filed as an appeal in 2017, about four years earlier.

I have seen trial court motions in both the state and federal courts languish for one to two years before being ruled upon.

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