This week, we’re looking at one of the most frequently seen analytics about appellate decision-making and courts of last resort: which Appellate Court has the highest (and lowest) reversal rate. First, a few words about method. We define criminal and quasi-criminal cases in our database as criminal, quasi-criminal cases like habeas corpus, juvenile and mental health cases, and attorney disciplinary cases. Civil is everything else – the typical practice of most civil appellate lawyers. To smooth out random variations, we’re using three-year floating average reversal rates. Thus, the number for 1992 is the combined reversal rate for 1990, 1991 and 1992. In 1993, we drop 1990 from the calculation and add 1993 – and so on to the present day. Today, we’re looking at civil cases in the Divisions of Chicago’s First District, and tomorrow, we’ll cover the rest of the state.
But first, one very important reminder. There’s a good argument that looking at reversal rates for cases actually heard by the Supreme Court as some kind of indication whether a particular District or Division was out of step with the Supreme Court is inherently misleading. Even if a court’s three-year floating average reversal rate at some point was 80% or 90%, the fact remains that the Supreme Court almost certainly denied leave to appeal in anywhere from 80% to 95% of the cases from that same court where it was sought. So, it’s equally valid to say that a particular District or Division’s “true” reversal rate generally floats in or near the single digits.
For the entire twenty-eight years, the Court heard the more civil cases from Division Three of the First District than anywhere else in the First – 106. The least frequently appearing Division from the First was Division Five, with 65 cases. By a very narrow margin, Division Two had the highest reversal rate in the First District – 60.49%. There was very little variation in the First District – the lowest twenty-eight year reversal rate was Division Four at 52.38%.
Table 906 reports the numbers for Division One of the First District. For the entire period, Division One was reversed in 54.79% of the civil cases the Supreme Court decided. For the first half of the 90s, Division One was slightly above its long term average, topping out at 80% in 1993. For the second half of the decade, Division One was generally below its average, with the best year being 1999 at 30%. The reversal rate was only slightly above average for the first half of the first decade of the 2000s before dropping sharply between 2006 and 2010, hitting its lowest level in 2008 – a three-year floating average reversal rate of only 12.5%. After a few bad years from 2011 to 2014, Division One’s reversal rate has reverted to its long-term trend.
For most of the period from 1992 (i.e., the combined average for 1990, 1991 and 1992) to about 2003, Division Two’s reversal rate in civil cases hovered right around its long-term average of 60.49. The rate reached its low point in 2001 (44.44%) and its high in 1996 – 66.67%. Division Two then had several consecutive very good years in civil cases, dropping as far as 28.57% for 2004, but from 2009 to 2014, Division Two’s three-year rate was significantly above its long-term average, reaching 90% in 2012 and 2013, and 100% in 2014. The average has dropped back to 50% for 2016 and 2017.
The twenty-eight year reversal rate for Division Three was only twelve one-hundredths of a point behind Division Two at 60.37%. During the 1990s, the low for Division Three was 36.36% reversal; the high was 81.25% in 1996. The rate dropped to 41.67% in 2002 and a bit more to 36.36% in 2003, before settling in the mid-50s from 2005 to 2008. Division Three’s rate had two major swings in opposite directions for 2009 and 2010 (42.86% in 2009, 87.5% in 2010, before settling consistently into the low-to-mid-sixties ever since.
Division Four fared quite well between 1990 and 2017 in civil cases – only 52.38% of the civil cases the Court decided from Four were reversed. For the first half of the 90s, its rate was generally around that number, peaking at 66.67% in 1995. After two good years in 1997 and 1998 (37.5%, 42.86%), the Division Four returned to trend. The court then had three straight not-so-good years between 2003 and 2005: 71.43%, 83.33% and 80%. After a few years close to trend, Four had three straight very good years at the Supreme Court – 33.33% in 2010, 25% in 2011 and 30% in 2012. In the years since, Division Four’s civil reversal rate has been a bit above its long term average.
As for the sixty-five civil cases the Court decided from Division Five of the First District, exactly sixty percent were reversed in whole or in part. Aside from a one-year peak in 1997 (100%), Division Five’s reversal rate was right around that trend number from 1992 to 2002. Since then, Division Five has performed cyclically: three good years from 2003 to 2005 – 37.5% each year; some less successful years (80% in 2007, 2011 and 2012); two more good years in 2014 and 2015 (33.33% in 2014, 28.57% in 2015). In 2016 and 2017, Division Five was reversed at a higher-than-usual rate (63.64% and 76.92%).
Division Six ranked in the middle of the pack in the First District – from 1990 to 2017, 55.84% of its seventy-seven civil cases were reversed in whole or in part. Its rate was fairly close to that from 1992 to 2005, reaching a high only 66.67% in 1995 and 2004, and a low of 40% in 2001. Division Six had two very good years in 2006 and 2007 – 33.33% and 27.27% – before the rate crept up again. For much of the time since 2010, Division Six’s reversal rate has been above average: a low in 2013 at 66.67%, a high in 2016 of 80% – before dropping back to half in 2017.
Our final group consists of First District cases between 1990 and 2004 for which I was unable to identify a specific Division. Candidly, I considered leaving these numbers out of the post, since it’s a biased grouping – cases fall here for no better reason that the Appellate Court decision was unpublished and the Supreme Court’s opinion didn’t disclose the Division. But just to round out our discussion, 49.09% of the fifty-five “unknown Division” cases were reversed. The number reached 22.22% in 1993 and 1994 before briefly reaching 76.19% in 1999. The rate was relatively close to average from 2000 to 2003, before reaching 66.67% in 2004 (the year of the last “unknown Division” case).
Join us back here later tonight as we turn our attention to the civil docket in the rest of Illinois’ Districts.