Over the past few weeks, we’ve been analyzing the Illinois Supreme Court’s civil and criminal dockets, looking at the performance of individual Districts of the Appellate Court. Now, we’ll disaggregate the data divided into areas of the law and ask two questions: (1) Does the Court tend to take more liberal or conservative Appellate Court decisions in certain areas of the law; and (2) Does the Court reverse either liberal or conservative decisions at a higher rate? We’ll compare our results both over time on the two sides of the docket, and between the civil and criminal sides.
We touched on the issue of ideological coding of appellate decisions a few weeks ago over at the California Supreme Court Review in our post about formalism, realism and attitudinalism as theories of judicial behavior. Although the idea has long been controversial, ideological coding of appellate decisions has been widespread among empirical students of appellate decision making at least since C. Herman Pritchett’s classic The Roosevelt Court: A Study in Judicial Politics and Values, 1937-1947. That literature has revealed a host of important insights for better understanding and predicting appellate decision making.
Because our primary goal here is to develop insights about the Court’s handling of the underlying cases (and to avoid adding subjectivity to the data), we adopt a default rule, coding decisions for the defendant as conservative and decisions for the plaintiff as liberal. Where a party which typically appears as the defendant happens to be in a case as the plaintiff – such as an insurer bringing a declaratory judgment action rather than awaiting a coverage suit – we nevertheless code that party as the conservative position. The government’s side in an enforcement action is coded as liberal. Where a party is suing the government for being insufficiently rigorous in its enforcement, the plaintiff is coded as liberal, but where the plaintiff argues that the government is overreaching, we code the government’s position as liberal.
First, let’s revisit the composition of the civil docket between 2000 and 2004. In Table 304, we report the percentage of the docket accounted for by each area of the law. Tort is the mainstay of the Court’s civil docket at 24.07%. Only two other subjects account for even ten percent of the caseload – government and administrative at 14.11% and civil procedure at 12.03%. Constitutional law made up 8.71% of the civil docket. Domestic relations accounted for 7.88%, insurance was 6.22%, and 4.98% of the Court’s caseload arose from workers’ compensation. Property law, once the dominant area in the Court’s docket, was only 3.32% of the civil docket. Another 2.9% of the docket involved tax law. Surprisingly, contracts and employment law amounted to only 2.49% and 2.07%, respectively. Three additional areas were between one and two percent of the docket – wills and estates (1.66%), public employee pensions (1.66%), arbitration and consumer law (1.24% each). Other areas were below one percent – election law, environmental law, redistricting, secured transactions, trusts and construction.
But does the Court incline towards reviewing more liberal or conservative decisions in these areas? We divided each area of the law into liberal and conservative Appellate Court decisions (dropping out the occasional certified questions from the Seventh Circuit). In Table 305 below, we report the percentage of the Court’s docket in that area of the law which involved a liberal decision from the Appellate Court. (In other words, if the Court reviewed six liberal decisions and four conservative ones in a particular area, we would report a 60% below).
In fifteen different areas of the law, more than half of the Court’s civil docket between 2000 and 2004 came from liberal decisions of the Appellate Court. In some cases, such as contract, redistricting and election law, this is misleading, since the Court heard very few cases. But that list includes most of the Court’s most frequently heard areas of the law, including tort (66.08% liberal), government and administrative (58.07%), domestic relations (57.89%) and constitutional (58.82%). Among the mainstays of the Court’s civil docket, only civil procedure (41.38%) and workers compensation (44.44%) involved less than half liberal Appellate Court decisions.
Join us back here tomorrow and we’ll address the Court’s reversal rate, area by area, of liberal and conservative Appellate Court decisions.