September 20, 2010
The Judicial Council’s latest annual Court Statistics Report is out, giving lots of data about all levels of the California judiciary during fiscal year 2008-2009 and the 9 years before that. The Supreme Court numbers are revealing, demonstrating just how many matters the seven justices rule on annually. The data also show that, at least for this one year, the court got much pickier about which cases it would decide on the merits.
For the 2008-2009 fiscal year, the court disposed of 9,513 cases, down from a spike of 10,440 the previous year. The dispositions include petitions for review, original proceedings (mostly habeas corpus petitions), and State Bar matters. That’s 26 dispositions every calendar day, including weekends and holidays.
As if we needed a reminder, the report starkly illustrates the difficulty of having a petition for review granted. Of the 5,004 petitions for review ruled on for the year, the court granted a grand total of 108, or a little over 2 percent. If that’s not sufficiently depressing (or encouraging, for those who win in the Court of Appeal), the court ordered straight grants – i.e., where the court will hear oral argument and issue an opinion, as opposed to grant-and-hold and grant-and-transfer cases – only 39 times, less than 0.8 percent of the total petition rulings.
A petition for review in a civil case had a better chance of success than one in a criminal case, especially on straight grants. Overall, the court granted 38 of 1,273 civil petitions for review (3 percent) and 70 of 3,731 criminal petitions (less than 2 percent). Although there were significantly more criminal than civil petitions, the court ordered 20 straight civil grants (1.5 percent of all civil petitions) and 19 straight criminal grants (0.5 percent of all criminal petitions). There were only 7 civil grant-and-transfer orders, all but one in writ cases.
Now for the “pickier” part. The 2008-2009 grant numbers are dramatically lower than previous years.
The overall 2-percent grant rate is the lowest of any year going back to fiscal year 1988-1989, the earliest year for which statistics are available on the Judicial Council’s website. The 8- and 6-percent grant rates for 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 were high, but, for 17 of the 18 years before that, the grant rate still was either 3, 4, or 5 percent.
The 39 straight grants are also an all-time low (or at least since 1988-1989). In fact, the court hadn’t had less than 77 straight grants since 1990-1991. From 2001-2002 through 2007-2008, the number of straight grants ranged from 82 to 136.
It will be interesting to see whether this noticeable decrease in straight grants is an anomaly and also whether it affects the court’s opinion output.
In 2008-2009, the court issued 116 opinions, unchanged from the previous year. According to Professor Uelmen’s recent article, the court issued 96 opinions in fiscal year 2009-2010, lower than any year since 1998-1999.
Of course, fewer straight grants does not necessarily mean fewer total opinions. The quite substantial death-penalty docket is filled with automatic appeals, not discretionary-review cases. The Supreme Court is doing heavy lifting on its death-penalty caseload, but in 2008-2009 it was just running in place – the court disposed of 25 automatic appeals, but 24 new death penalty appeals were filed. Possibly the smaller number of straight grants was designed to allow the court to take a bigger bite out of its death-penalty backlog.
One more interesting statistic shows the court’s continued reluctance to use its depublication powers. In 2008-2009, the court depublished only 13 Court of Appeal opinions. That’s a record low, but not that much different than in the previous six years. By contrast, in the early 1990’s, the court depublished over 100 opinions each year. Although the Judicial Council’s report doesn’t break down depublication orders by civil and criminal cases, we’ve noticed that criminal case opinions are depublished more frequently than civil case opinions.