WASHINGTON -- While Americans have to wait until June, Supreme Court justices will know the likely outcome of the historic health care case by the time they go home this weekend.
After hearing arguments this week, the justices will vote Friday morning on the fate of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul, the core of which mandates that Americans must have health insurance.
In the weeks after this meeting, individual votes can change as the justices read each other's draft opinions and dissents.
But Friday's vote will be followed by the assignment of a single justice to write a majority opinion, or in a case this complex, perhaps two or more justices will tackle different issues. That's where the hard work begins, with the clock ticking toward the end of the court's session in early summer.
The late William Rehnquist, who was chief justice for nearly 19 years, has written that the court's conference "is not a bull session in which off-the-cuff reactions are traded." Instead, he said, votes are cast, one by one in order of seniority.
The Friday conference also is not a debate, says Brian Fitzpatrick, a Vanderbilt University law professor who worked for Justice Antonin Scalia 10 years ago. There will be plenty of time for the back-and-forth in dueling opinions that could follow.
"They say, `This is how I'm going to vote' and give a few sentences," Fitzpatrick said.
It will be the first time the justices gather as a group to discuss the case. Even they do not always know what the others are thinking when they enter the conference room adjacent to Chief Justice John Roberts' office.
"They generally find out how the votes line up at the conference," said Orin Kerr, a George Washington University law professor who worked for Justice Anthony Kennedy nine years ago.
The uncertainty may be especially pronounced in this case, where the views of Roberts and Kennedy are likely to decide the outcome, Kerr said Thursday. "I don't think anyone knows. I'm not sure Justice Kennedy knows."
If Roberts is in the majority, he will assign the main opinion, and in a case of this importance, he may well write it himself, several former law clerks said. If Roberts is a dissenter, the senior justice in the majority assigns the opinion.
The court won't issue its ruling in a case until drafts of majority opinions and any dissents have circulated among the justices, changes have been suggested and either accepted or rejected.
"These justices aren't locked in. Minds have changed during the drafting process, and minds have changed after opinions have been circulated," said Rick Garnett, associate dean and professor of law at Notre Dame Law School, who worked for Rehnquist 15 years ago.
No one will know precisely when decisions on particular cases will be coming. Decisions in the biggest cases very often aren't announced until the last day of the term.
Supreme Court opinions rarely find their way to the public before they are read in the courtroom.
The last apparent security breach occurred more than 30 years ago when Tim O'Brien, then a reporter for ABC News, informed viewers that the court planned to issue a particular opinion the following day. Chief Justice Warren Burger accused an employee in the printing shop of tipping O'Brien and had the employee transferred to a different job.