Matt Kaiser

As the Chief Justice announced at the start of today’s session of the Supreme Court, October Term 2011 is concluded; October Term 2012 has commenced.

And what a commencement it was. Stars of the Supreme Court bar flooded into One First Street N.E. to welcome the start of the term — and also because of the massive amount of corporate amicus work brought on by Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum.

Tom Goldstein, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of the invaluable SCOTUSblog, parked himself at the front of the lawyer’s lounge, resplendent in a pink shirt and pink tie — like Regis Philbin’s wardrobe, but in a way that worked for a lawyer.

There were two cases up for argument today. One involved whether you can sue a company with a U.S. subsidiary for very bad things it does in cahoots with the Nigerian government. The other was over the scope of federal admiralty jurisdiction….

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October first is the start of the new Supreme Court term!

If, like many readers, you’re a few years out of law school, this may strike you with a mild sense of dread. You remember the heady days of law school when you followed every argument, opinion, and cert grant from One First Street Northeast with an excitement rivaled only by your enthusiasm for the starting salaries for first-year associates.

Alas, the years since law school haven’t been kind to your pants size or your level of engagement with the Supreme Court.

Now, I suspect, you worry that soon — at a family dinner, dropping off your kids at preschool, or anywhere else you interact with non-lawyers — someone will recognize that you are a lawyer, and ask you what to make of the new Supreme Court term.

You have three options for how to deal with this, now, before the media frenzy over the new Supreme Court term starts.

First, you can admit to yourself that you’re no longer the gunner you used to be. You can tell people that just don’t follow the Supreme Court anymore, since you’ve gotten really interested in your exciting new life doing document review for a municipal bond arbitration.

But you’re not going to do that. If you were that good at being honest with yourself, you aren’t likely to be the kind of person who went to law school in the first place.

Second, perhaps, you can wade through the volume of information out there about the new term. Go through SCOTUSblog with the same passion you now spend tracking whether your friends from law school have better careers than you do. Maybe go to one of the OT 2012 preview events that clog every convention hall and small town library starting in mid-September.

That takes time and energy. Tom Goldstein sometimes uses really long paragraphs, and you really wanted to spend more time Googling for topless pictures of Kate Middleton.

Instead, you could let me to one of those events for you. For the truly efficient, follow the jump, sit back, and enjoy Kaiser’s Guide To Bluffing Your Way Through Knowledge About the Supreme Court’s New Term to Non-Lawyers….

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The individual mandate — er, tax — in the Affordable Care Act has been upheld. The President’s signature initiative survives. The reputation of the Court is untarnished. Chief Justice Roberts’s legacy as a steward of the Court’s institutional reputation is strengthened.

It’s a happy day for the Court, the President, and people who sometimes need health care. The opinion is bad news for Justice Kennedy (if Roberts will swing, who needs Kennedy?) and, I think, the belly dancers who were in front of the Court this morning (their political leanings aren’t as easy to discern as their midriffs).

But, of course, there was other action at the Court today. The Court affirmed a bedrock principle of our democracy — we have a right to lie. Sort of….

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Thursday the Supreme Court will sit for its final session of October Term 2011. The Court will issue opinions in all the cases pending before it. For example, the Court will let the American people know whether they ever have a right to lie.

The Court will also rule on the case that, according to a sign I saw earlier, presents the question of whether we need to “Get The Feds Out of Medicare.” I’m not sure about the details of that case though, because it hasn’t gotten much press attention (I only read the Bicycle Times).

Today, however, the Court issued two opinions in argued cases. The fun in the courtroom was not in the opinions, but in the dissents….

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Most of the journalistic/legal world is on fire with excitement for the decision in the Affordable Care Act case. The New Yorker has a critical article on the not-yet-but-really-soon-to-be-issued decision and what it means for the Court. Time Magazine has a cover picture of Justice Kennedy — “The Decider” — a close-up so close you can see the lines in his bifocals. New York Magazine wrote about how frustrating it is that Supreme Court clerks don’t leak info so there would finally, for the love of all things holy, be something to report from the Court about the health care reform case.

Folks who don’t have press passes are also keyed up. I heard a rumor from one of my neighbors that the decision would come down this week! A friend of a friend told me that the health care reform case was in the bag for the conservatives. It’s like the finals in American Idol, but no one gets to text in their vote.

For weeks, the world has speculated and waited for an opinion. Each decision day for the past month the speculation has intensified. Each decision day a decision in Obamacare has not come.

What happened at One First Street today?

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Most news you get in life, you know when you’ll get it. Law school grades are posted on a schedule. Your doctor will tell you when the test results are due back. You know when the polls close on election night, and that it will only take so long to count the ballots (though there are some exceptions).

The Supreme Court isn’t like that. Here they are, the closing days of October Term 2011, and all we know is that the Supreme Court will issue opinions at some point in the next few weeks. We don’t know if today is the day.

This creates an odd frustration and excitement in the section of the courtroom where members of the Supreme Court Bar sit.

Today, a number of lawyers recognize Art Spitzer, the legal director for the D.C. area ACLU, sitting in the section for members of the Supreme Court Bar. He was at the Court last week, too. The lawyers sitting and waiting are starved for information about what’s about to happen next.

As lawyers come in, some recognize Art and ask him what opinions the Court will hand down today. He’s a good guy, and reminds them that the only people who know are putting on black robes as he talks. He amicably complains that last week he schlepped all the way down to the Court only to hear a bankruptcy opinion. Art is not interested in the Court’s bankruptcy jurisprudence.

There’s a lot of conversation about what the Court might do today — is life without parole for juveniles constitutional? Is Obamacare? What about the newest Confrontation Clause case? The section of seating for bar members crackles with lawyers eager to show they know what cases are on the Court’s remaining docket.

The Justices come take their seats on the bench — all but Alito — and the Chief Justice announces that Justice Breyer has the first opinion of the day.

We’re on the edge of our seats as Breyer takes a second to make sure he has the attention of the courtroom. He starts to speak….

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Today, the day after Memorial Day, it feels like summer in Washington. The air is wet and hot; when you’re outside, your clothes stick to your skin fast. I envy the tourists who get to wear shorts to the Supreme Court sessions.

It’s hot in other ways, too — the Court’s term is over at the end of June, and there is only so much time left for the Justices to crank out opinions. There are more TV cameras in front of the Supreme Court today, and the press section of the courtroom is more crowded than in the last few weeks.

Protesters are out at the Supreme Court too — a Lyndon LaRouche supporter asked me whether I can afford to bail out Spain. She smiled so pleasantly that I thought for a second she meant whether I, personally, could afford to bail out Spain. I almost started about talking about my law school debt, but realized that wasn’t what they were asking when I saw the sign urging the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

A woman holding a placard is either pro-Jesus or anti-abortion or both; I have a weak stomach for fetus gore, so I try not to look. I’m as much a fan of the First Amendment as the next guy, but boy does it encourage a freak show.

As with last week, the expectation for a big opinion from the Court is increasing….

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The Supreme Court session starts at 10:00 a.m. At 9:55, a tall man with broad shoulders and little neck — a man with an ear piece running out of the back of his suit coat — tells everyone in the Courtroom to be quiet and stay in their seats until the session is over. The room quiets.

This is the calm before the storm. No one expects any of this term’s true blockbusters to be announced today – there will be no health care decision, no ruling on the constitutionality of the Stolen Valor Act, no ruling on whether Arizona gets to codify its very strong dislike of immigrants.

During this time, those who watch the Court are scanning for signs of either discord or harmony. Even a concert at the Court invites scrutiny of which Justice is chummier with which other Justice. The Supreme Court watching world is like a group of eight-year-olds in the week before Christmas, sniffing the presents under the tree and trying to hunt through their parents’ closets. It’s dignified.

The Courtroom is silent after the broad man quiets us. And then, growing louder, we hear voices. Male voices. And laughter, booming male laughter, as the Chief and Justice Scalia emerge through the parted curtains, and Court is called to order.

What does the laughter mean? Is Obamacare all but destroyed? Is a secret deal finally sealed? Or did the Chief Justice share a bit of ribald humor from his native Indiana?

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Ed. note: Please welcome Matt Kaiser, our new Supreme Court columnist at Above the Law. His photo and bio appear after the jump.

This is my first column for Above the Law on the Supreme Court. In an effort to help me generate effective linkbait, the Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday at the intersection of bankruptcy and tax law for farmers — Hall v. United States.

Basically, Hall means that, if you’re a farmer and you declare bankruptcy on your farm under Chapter 12 (“the one just for farmers”), and, while in bankruptcy, you sell your farm, you will still have to pay capital gains tax on the sale of your farm — any liability to the IRS is not dischargeable.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the opinion is that Ninth Circuit was affirmed. Though, in fairness, the Ninth Circuit opinion was written by Judge O’Scannlain, so it’s not as though the Supreme Court affirmed Judge Reinhardt.

Also, farmers who are in bankruptcy and sell their farms now have to pay tax on the profits from those sales. I’m sure much of the Midwest is rioting in response.

For those who practice tax law, bankruptcy, or farming law, you will definitely want to read the opinion and some of the write-ups on it.

But the most exciting part of the morning involved new members of the Supreme Court bar….

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