April 28, 2011

The California Supreme Court’s 2010 affirmance rates in civil cases reveal change and continuity

In a chart published with a September 2009 article in California Lawyer magazine, Supreme Court watcher Professor Gerald Uelmen surveyed the Court’s affirmance rates by appellate district and division for the periods 1996 to 2004, and 2004 to 2009. (Uelmen’s chart is not available online, but we have summarized his results for civil cases here.) Building on his work, we decided to review the court’s 2010 affirmance rates in civil cases to see if we could discern any changes. The following are some of the trends we observed.

The Court’s overall civil affirmance rate fell from 44.17 percent in the period 1996 to 2004, to 41.16 percent between 2004 and 2009. With those statistics for comparison, 2010’s robust civil affirmance rate of 47.2 percent (17 of 36 cases) suggests that, overall, affirmances are again on the rise. But these fluctuations are relatively minor and it seems safe to say that, in any given year, slightly more than half of the civil cases in which review has been granted statewide will result in reversals.

At the district level, the Sixth District Court of Appeal in San Jose, had one of the lowest civil affirmance rates between 2004 and 2009, at just 18 percent. But in 2010, half of the Sixth District’s civil decisions were affirmed. In contrast with the Sixth District’s seeming reversal of fortune, however, the Sacramento-based Third District Court of Appeal had a civil affirmance rate of 34 percent between 2004 and 2009 and, in 2010, just one of its four decisions was affirmed.

Of course, the sample size for one year is so small that it’s hard to draw any meaningful conclusions about trends. A change in affirmance rates may be completely anomalous. Moreover, such statistics should not be seen as reflecting on the performance of the Courts of Appeal. Since the California Supreme Court is not an error correcting body, but rather is in the business of clarifying unsettled questions of statewide importance, each case that comes before the court is by definition a close call, and a reversal may come about not because the Court of Appeal incorrectly applied existing precedent, but rather because the Supreme Court has made a decision to take our state’s law in a new direction.

One Response to “The California Supreme Court’s 2010 affirmance rates in civil cases reveal change and continuity”

  1. I am a volunteer mediator with the court of appeal, 4th district, division 2. Your article is helpful. I have been looking for statistics for the courts of appeal vs. the supreme court and which drill down even further, based upon items like standard of review. I believe that these statistics will help me in the settlement conference. As the joke goes, “everyone thinks that their child is above average, but half are wrong.” Virtually every counsel I have spoken to believes that theirs is the appeal which for whatever reason will be overturned on appeal. Having hard data will help me overcome this objection to settlement. Thanks for your help.

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