This week, we’re turning our attention to a new subject – how has the average length of the Court’s majority, concurring and dissenting opinions in civil cases changed between 1990 and 2017? In studying the numbers, we’re looking for evidence on two points: are opinions getting consistently longer or shorter, whether because of the evolution of the docket, changes in judicial style or changes in the members of the Court, and whether longer dissents (or concurrences) tend to drive longer majorities (or vice versa). Today, we’re reviewing the civil docket between 1990 and 2003. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the years 2004 to 2017.
We chart the data for majority opinions, concurrences and dissents in civil cases between 1990 and 2003 in Table 727 below. Majority opinions were slowly getting longer during these years. After four straight years between seventeen and nineteen pages 1990-1993, the average increased to 23.14 in 1994 and 28.43 in 1996. In the seven years after that, majorities got a bit shorter, but never returned to the 1990-1993 level. In 1998, the average civil majority was 25.96 pages, it was between twenty-four and twenty-five in 1999 and 2000, fell to 20.29 in 2002, but recovered to 22.75 in 2003.
Concurrences, on the other hand, were not following any consistent trend. The average civil concurrence was 6.14 pages in 1991, before dropping to 4 in 1992, 2.25 in 1993 and 2.1 in 1994. By 1996, the average had recovered back to 6.45 in 1996, 6 in 1997, 6.27 in 1998 and 7.43 in 1999. Then it dipped again, reaching three pages in 2001, before recovering to 4 pages in 2002 and 5.22 in 2003.
Dissents got noticeably longer during this fourteen year period. The average civil dissent was between six and eight pages between 1990 and 1993, but it increased to 8.94 in 1994, 11 (1995), 13 (1996) and 13.5 (1997). The average dipped to 9.17 in 1998 but rose quickly back to its trend line – 12.52 in 1999 and 2000, 11.35 in 2001, 10 in 2002 and 13.7 pages in 2003.
Given that both majority opinions and dissents seemed to be slowly getting longer between 1990 and 2003, we would expect the total output of opinion pages – majorities, concurrences and dissents – to be trending upward too. And it definitely was. In 1990, the average civil case required 28.04 pages of opinions to decide. By 1994 and 1995, that number was in the thirties (34.18 and 37.16, respectively). By 1996, the average civil case was 47.88 pages. The number fell briefly into the thirties again in 2001 and 2002 (38.31 pages in 2001 and 34.29 pages in 2002), before increasing to 41.67 pages in 2003.
Join us back here tomorrow as we address the civil docket for the years 2004 through 2017.