Sooner or later, every discussion of Supreme Court statistics turns to the rates at which the appellate courts are reversed. It’s been a frequent political football nationally, with politicians praising or condemning one Circuit or another based on the percentage of their cases reversed by the Supreme Court. It’s a frequent subject of conventional wisdom as well – one frequently hears of state Supreme Courts that “they don’t take cases to affirm.” The irony is that at every level, it’s an unfair statistic in a sense. It’s arguably misleading to say that this Circuit or this District has a eighty or ninety percent reversal rate when eighty to ninety percent of all certiorari petitions (or PLAs, in Illinois) are denied.
So we’ll take our analysis in two steps. Over the next few weeks, we’ll address the traditional reversal rates, several years at a time, district by district, comparing the civil docket to the criminal cases.
Then, we’ll turn to the Court’s handling of PLAs from 2007 through 2015, considering district by district grant rates, overall, year-by-year and divided into criminal and civil. We’ll aggregate the data month by month and consider whether one’s odds of getting a PLA granted are markedly better or worse in any of the Court’s terms. And then we’ll take a look at “true” reversal rates – the percentage of every district’s cases for which PLAs are filed, granted, and the decision reversed.
We report the Court’s overall reversal rates in civil cases between 2000 and 2005 in Table 261 below. The overall reversal rate is quite stable over time, between 54 and 57 percent in four of the six years. From this, we can see that the notion that the Supreme Court doesn’t take cases to affirm was frequently false for this initial period. The reversal rate dipped from 56.8% to 46.8% between 2000 and 2001 before jumping to 60.4% in 2002. In the years that followed, the overall reversal rate in civil cases was almost identical year after year.
We turn next to the district-by-district data. Unlike much of our other numbers, we won’t be reporting year-by-year data for the Appellate Courts. Why? Well, take a look at Table 262, the year-by-year reversal rates in civil cases for the divisions of the First District between 2000 and 2005.
The chart’s a mess, to put it mildly. The reason is when the Supreme Court hears only three or four cases a year from a given Appellate Court, a difference which is really largely random – the difference between reversing two of four and three of four, for example – has an enormous impact on the year-by-year reversal rate, and the graph moves wildly up and down.
So instead, we’ll use three-year floating rates. So where we report a number for 2002 below, that means we’re using cases from 2000, 2001 and 2002. For the next year, we drop the data for 2000 and add 2003, and so on.
In Table 263, we report the three-year floating reversal rates in civil cases for the six divisions of the First District. We see that in this initial period, Divisions Two, Three and Five performed best, with the reversal rate on their decisions staying fairly consistently below the statewide average. By 2004, the three year floating reversal rate for District Two was only 28.57%, and the following year, it dropped to 16.67%. The reversal rate for District Three was between twenty and thirty percent each year from 2003 through 2005. The reversal rate for Division Five was significantly below the statewide average too, remaining at 37.5% from 2003 through 2005. Of all the Divisions, only Division One tended to be reversed at a somewhat higher rate than the statewide average during these years – and the difference was not large (ranging from 60% to a high of 66.67% each year).
In Table 264 below, we report the three-year floating reversal rates for the remaining districts of the Appellate Court, including the Industrial Commission divisions of the First and Fifth Districts, and appeals which reached the Supreme Court directly from the Circuit Courts (on the civil side, mostly constitutional cases).
The Third and Fourth Districts fared quite well in this initial period, which their floating reversal rates staying at least somewhat under the statewide average in nearly every year. The reversal rate for the Fifth District was consistently around the statewide average for the first several years of our period before abruptly jumping to 72.73% in 2005. The Second District consistently did worse than the statewide average, with their civil decisions between reversed at a sixty to seventy percent rate (five to fifteen points higher than the statewide number). The Industrial Commission data is based on a very small number of cases, but the other interesting thing about this chart is the reversal rate in direct appeals – 84.62% in 2002, 73.33% in 2003 and 2004, and 66.67% in 2005 – in every year, well above the statewide reversal rates. This further confirms what we’ve seen again and again – that the Supreme Court tends to take a fairly skeptical view of Circuit Court decisions striking down state statutes.
Join us back here tomorrow as we turn to the data for criminal cases between 2000 and 2005.