Wisconsin Supreme Court justices have recently expressed concern over the rate at which cases have been decided this term and the often-lengthy period of time required for decisions to be issued.  With the Court’s term now concluded, the filing of the last batch of decisions over the next few weeks will shed more light on the scope of these problems.  In the meantime, a look at correlations between various factors during the Court’s previous 14 terms will provide some reference points from which to view the data for the current term later this summer.

Correlations—strong and weak

Data from the previous terms reveal a comparatively strong negative correlation between the number of decisions in a term and the number of days between oral arguments and the filing of decisions—that is, the larger the number of decisions, the fewer the number of days between oral argument and decision filing, while the smaller the number of decisions, the longer the wait.  The last seven years of the period under consideration have seen the Court issue 32% fewer decisions than it did during the first seven years, while, in line with this correlation, the number of days between argument and filing has usually been higher than in the earlier years.  (table and graphs)

The Court’s goal of 60 decisions in 2013-14 is similar to the annual number of decisions over the past five terms (except for 2012-13, when it plunged to 46).  Thus, if the correlation noted above holds for 2013-14, we can expect a lengthy average period between argument and filing.

One might also anticipate a strong correlation between the average number of concurring and dissenting opinions per decision and the number of days between argument and filing.  The larger the number of justices who write concurrences and dissents in a case, this reasoning holds, the longer it should take, on average, for a decision to be filed.  As it happens, such a correlation is evident, but it is a good deal weaker than the correlation noted above. (graph)   Clearly there is some relationship between the number of concurring and dissenting opinions on the one hand and the wait for a decision on the other, but this correlation has not been dramatic over the past 14 years.  It will be interesting to see if data for 2013-14 suggest a more robust relationship between these two factors.

Does unanimity matter in this regard?

It would appear plausible to hypothesize that the average number of days between argument and filing should decrease as the percentage of comparatively uncontentious (unanimous) decisions increases.  Yet the correlation here is very weak (graphs), suggesting that the percentage of split decisions has not been a pivotal factor in the growing number of days between argument and filing.

Past patterns will not continue indefinitely, of course, but without bearing them in mind, it will be impossible to ascertain in what ways, if any, the Court’s 2013-14 term has been remarkable.

About Alan Ball

Alan Ball is a Professor of History at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI.


SCOWstats offers numerical analysis of the voting by Wisconsin Supreme Court justices on diverse issues over the past 95 years.

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