Last week, we reviewed the year-by-year data on the length of the Court’s opinions in civil cases – majorities, concurrences and dissents. We were looking at two questions: first, are opinions getting longer (or shorter) over time, and second, is there a relationship between longer dissents and longer majorities? This week, we’re looking at the criminal docket, beginning today with the years 1990 to 2003.
Because this dataset includes all the Court’s criminal cases, including death penalty cases, we would expect the average majority opinion to be significantly longer than the average in civil cases, and in fact, it is. That said, there was no consistent trend upwards or downwards; about all we can say is that the average majority opinion was in the thirties or forties during these years. Only three years were outside that range: 1990 (26.24 pages), 1994 (27.27 pages) and 2001 (29.52 pages).
Concurrences varied along a very small band too. Between 1990 and 1995, the average concurrence was between one and a half and two and a half pages. Between 1997 and 2003, the average bounced around between a low of 3.12 pages (1997) and a high of 4.64 pages (1998).
Dissents were a bit more unpredictable, but not much. After remaining fairly flat between the high fours and low sevens from 1990 to 1995, the average dissent jumped to 10.74 pages in 1996. From there until 2003, the increase largely held – 9.46 in 1997, 10.93 in 1998, a small dip from 1999 to 2001, then 9.11 in 2002 and 9.18 in 2003.
In Table 732, we report the average total pages of opinions per criminal case. The average was in the thirties in 1990-1991 and 1993-1994, spiking to 49.73 in 1992. In the years 1996 to 1998, there was a three year significant increase, to 54.99 in 1996, 51.97 pages in 1997 and 57.44 in 1998. From that year until 2003, the average nosed back down into the forties: 43.42 pages in 1999, 45.78 pages in 2000, 45.95 pages in 2002 and 46.3 pages in 2003.
Join us back here tomorrow as we turn our attention to the years 2004 through 2017.