This week, we begin our look at the impact of declining Court of Appeal caseloads on the work of the Supreme Court.
We’ll be reviewing three questions in order to analyze the impact of the slow decline in cases at the Court of Appeal: (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? Today we’re looking at the criminal docket.
For the decade, the Court decided 472 civil cases (an average, of course, of 47.2 per year). The Court filed 10,595 pages of majority opinions. Civil majority opinions averaged 22.45 pages. Civil cases were more or less flat during the 1990s at the Supreme Court. There were 52 civil cases in 1992, 51 in 1994 and 57 in 1997. There were 54 cases in 1998 and 52 in 1999. The lows of the decade were in 1990 (39 civil cases) and 1996 (31 civil cases).
Civil opinions slowly increased in length at the Supreme Court during the 1990. In 1990, there were only 699 pages of majority opinions – well below the average of 1,059 pages a year. That number rose to 990 in 1992. By 1994, there were 1,180 pages of majority opinions and 1,293 in 1995. Pages per year remained above the baseline average for the final three years of the decade – 1,380 in 1997, 1,376 in 1998 and 1,259 in 1999.
Majority opinions were definitely getting longer during the 1990s. In 1990, the average civil majority was 17.92 pages. By 1992, it was up to 19.03 pages. In 1994, the average civil majority was 23.14 pages. By 1996, majority opinions were the longest – 28.39 pages. That declined a bit to 24.9 pages by 1999, but across the decade, the average majority opinion grew by 40% in length.
Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the data for the same period on the criminal docket.