Last week, we continued our look at the question patterns in civil cases at the Illinois Supreme Court by analyzing whether there’s a higher-than-random likelihood that the Justice asking the first question to either side is writing the majority opinion.
Today, we continue our analysis with a somewhat different issue: do the Justices tend to ask more questions in cases involving certain areas of the law? Keep in mind, we’re talking total questions here. While we determined earlier that losing parties are likely to get more questions than winners, this doesn’t address the question of which cases will get 10-15 questions per side and which ones might get 30-35 per side.
It’s easy enough to imagine a reason why the area of the law might influence the level of questions from the Court; the Justices might well tend to ask more questions, all else being equal, about areas they seldom hear and are therefore somewhat less familiar with in comparison to the mainstays of their docket, such as tort and civil procedure.
Let’s see whether the data offers any support to our conjecture.
Below are the average questions asked to each side for all civil cases argued between 2008 and 2014, classified by the principal area of law involved in each case. Notice that far from sparking a significantly reduced number of questions, tort and civil procedure cases bring something close to the overall average number of questions. In tort, appellants were asked an average of 14.82 questions, while appellees were asked 14.58 questions. Questioning in civil procedure cases was a bit lighter – 12.56 to appellants, 11.33 to appellees. Questioning in constitutional law, insurance, domestic relations and government law cases – which were all about equally common on the Court’s docket – was higher, but only slightly so.
So the evidence is at best equivocal as to whether the area of law strongly influences the level of questioning. Although contract and election law cases were comparatively rare on the Court’s docket during these years – two contract cases and seven election law – questioning was relatively heavy. Appellants were heavily questioned in environmental, employment, trusts and estates, public pensions and judicial cases, all of which are relatively uncommon on the Court’s docket. But on the other hand, administrative law, arbitration, commercial and surety law cases – also somewhat rare on the Court’s docket – drew comparatively fewer questions than other areas did.
With the exception of torts, most of these areas of law appear on the Court’s docket five times or fewer per year. For that reason, it’s not particularly informative to report year-by-year averages; when an area is only heard three or four times, a minor variation from one argument to the next will have an outsized influence on the mean.
However, tort law represents about a quarter of the Court’s docket year in and year out, so we report the year-by-year data below. Although the two sides’ level of questions were almost identical measured over the entire seven years, we see that the numbers varied fairly significantly from year to year. Average questions to appellants dropped somewhat in 2012 and 2013 – a phenomenon we’ve seen elsewhere in the data – but during the same years, questions to appellees actually increased. Tort cases were especially heavy on the docket in 2011 and 2012, but there’s no apparent effect on the average questions.
Tomorrow, we’ll return to our focus on the connection between the first question and writing by broadening last week’s question – are Justices who are writing something, whether a majority, special concurrence or dissent, statistically more likely to ask the first question?