During the past twenty years, the most frequently cited statistic among observers of the United States Supreme Court has been the “reversal rate” of each federal Circuit. What seldom gets reported is how misleading an apparently high reversal rate is, at least in absolute terms, given that even for the most supposedly disfavored Circuit, the Court is declining to review anywhere from ninety-five to ninety-nine out of every one hundred cases for which petitions for certiorari are filed.
The same is true of the Illinois Supreme Court. Because most petitions for leave to appeal are denied, viewed from the petition stage, few cases will ever be both reviewed and reversed. Nevertheless, there is something to be learned from comparing reversal rates across time for each District of the Appellate Court, and the various divisions of Chicago’s First District. Because the Court tends to hear relatively few cases from any particular District in a single year, random fluctuations cause year-to-year reversal rates to be misleading. Therefore, we report three-year floating averages:
It is a truism often heard among appellate specialists that the Supreme Court does not grant leave to appeal in order to affirm the Appellate Court’s decision. But in the years since 2000, the data does not strongly support this view. In most districts and most years, the Court reverses between fifty and seventy percent of the civil decisions it reviews.
There is one obvious exception: the Fifth District. For many years tort reform organizations have insisted that the Fifth District is a particularly hostile jurisdiction for defense interests. Since Justice Lloyd A. Karmeier joined the Court at the end of 2004, the Court has consistently reversed between seventy and ninety percent of the civil decisions it reviews from the Fifth District.
Tomorrow, we’ll review a related aspect of this same inquiry: how many votes to affirm do the civil decisions of each District average between 2000 and 2014?