This week, we’re turning our attention from the Appellate Court to the Supreme Court’s docket.
We’ll be reviewing three questions in order to analyze the impact of the slow decline in cases at the Appellate Court: (1) did the Supreme Court’s caseload decline? (2) Was the Supreme Court writing less in majority opinions? And (3) Were the Supreme Court’s majority opinions shorter?
I’m asked occasionally why we should care about the length of the Court’s opinions. There are two reasons. First, data analysts have demonstrated that the chances of a dissent increase as majority opinions get longer. Thus, if the Court is writing longer majorities, the chances of splintering the Court’s voice are greater. Second, as the majority opinions get longer, the Court is deciding more questions. This not only potentially impacts clients’ interests going forward in the lower courts, but it is of course related to the increased likelihood of dissent.
So, how was the Supreme Court doing in the 1990s? We begin with the civil cases.
For the entire decade, the Court decided 618 civil cases (an average, of course, of 61.8 cases per year). There were 9,329 pages of majority opinions filed in these cases – an average of 15.1 pages per majority. The total caseload declined at least a bit during the decade. The Court decided 88 civil cases in 1990, 89 in 1992 and 72 in 1994. In the second half of the decade, the numbers were consistently lower: 54 in 1995, 55 in 1996, 60 in 1997, 68 in 1998 and only 41 in 1999.
Majority opinions didn’t increase during the second half of the decade as total caseloads decreased. The Court filed 1,644 pages in majority opinions in 1990 and 1,468 in 1992. There were 968 pages in majority opinions in 1994. Interestingly, although there were only 55 civil cases in 1996, the Court published 989 pages in majority opinions. But writing declined after that – 718 pages in 1997, 769 in 1998 and only 488 in 1999.
Our final table shows the average length of majority opinions in civil cases during the decade. The longest opinions were in 1990, when majorities averaged 18.7 pages. This was down to 15.94 pages by 1995. After the average ticked up a bit in 1996 to 17.98 pages, it fell sharply to 11.97 in 1997, 11.31 in 1998 and 11.9 in 1999.
Next time, we’ll look at these same metrics for the criminal side of the docket.