This week, we take up a new topic: how has the length of the Court’s opinions – majority opinions, special concurrences and dissents – evolved over the past twenty-eight years? We’ll review the civil docket this week – today on the years 1990-2003 and tomorrow on 2004-2017 – and then turn to the criminal docket next week.
In Table 955, we report three variables: the average length of majority opinions, special concurrences, and dissents. Although there was some evidence that the average majority opinion was trending downwards from 1990 to the years 1997-2000 – dropping from an average of 18.68 pages to a low of 11.31 in 1998 – majority opinions drifted somewhat higher between 2000 and 2003, to 13.71 in 2001, 15.57 in 2002 and 14.87 in 2003. Over the entire fourteen years, the 1990 result is an outlier. With the exception of a one-year spike to 17.98 pages in 1996, the average majority opinion arguably didn’t change much over this period: from 15.47 pages in 1991 to 15.57 pages in 2002.
Interestingly, the average special concurrence drifted downward at almost the same time. In 1990, the average civil concurrence was 5.5 pages. By 1993, it had fallen to only 2 pages. After a brief recovery, it was down to 2.4 in 1998, 1.75 in 1999 and 2.5 in 2000. But between 2001 an 2003, concurrences moved upwards again, to 3.63 pages in 2001, 5.29 pages in 2002 and 4.75 pages in 2003.
The average civil dissent was fairly flat throughout these years. Once again, 1990 was an outlier, with the average civil dissent at 8.68 pages. But since then, the average dissent was between four and five pages in 1991, 1992 and 1993. Other than a three year dip from 1997 to 1999 – 3.32 pages in 1997, 2.63 pages in 1998 and 3.85 pages in 1999 – the average dissent was between four and five pages most years from 1991 to 2003.
In Table 996, we look at a somewhat different question: if particular categories of opinions, majorities, concurrences and dissent, aren’t consistently getting longer/shorter, are opinions as a whole trending in any particular direction? This provides some evidence on two questions: first, as the years go by and judicial styles, the Court’s personnel changes and perhaps the types and complexity of cases change, are opinions across the board getting longer or shorter; and second, do lengthy dissents tend to spark lengthy majorities?
In 1990, the Courts’ opinions average 32.86 pages in civil cases. With the exception of that year, there aren’t clear trends in any direction. Between 1991 and 1994, the Court averaged twenty-two to twenty-four pages per civil case. The number increased to 28.03 in 1995 and 28.25 in 1996 before dropping in the four years after to 18.86 (1997), 16.34 (1998), 17.5 (1999) and 18.36 (2000). But in 2001, the average case produced 22.72 pages in opinions. In 2002 and 2003, the average was back to trend – 25.38 pages (2002) and 24.82 pages (2003).
Join us back here later today as we review the years 2004 to 2017.