I remember many years ago my first-year Criminal Law professor telling us that you can always tell within the first five pages how an appellate criminal law case involving violent crime will come out: if it reads like a slasher movie, the defendant has lost. If you get well into the opinion and are wondering “but what did the defendant supposedly do” – then the defendant has won.
For the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at trends in the length of the Court’s opinions – are they getting longer or shorter, and is there a correlation between longer dissents (or concurrences) and longer majority opinions. So today, we’re beginning our look at a related subject: do majority opinions where the Supreme Court reverses tend to be longer than majorities affirming? At the outset, we could imagine either a “yes” or “no” answer to that question. If one believes that length is primarily driven by the complexity of the facts and law involved in a case, then there shouldn’t be a consistent relationship between length and result. On the other hand, one might argue that if we find that majorities reversing are consistently longer than majorities affirming, it could arguably suggest a healthy degree of caution and respect between the levels of the courts.
In Table 963, we chart the average length of majority opinions in reversals (in blue) and affirmances (in red) for civil cases between 1990 and 1996. In five of seven years, reversals were on average a bit longer than affirmances. In 1990, majorities in civil reversals averaged 19.74 pages to 16.48 pages for affirmances. In 1991, the difference was quite slight – 15.71 pages for reversals to 15 pages to affirmances. In 1992, reversals averaged 17.2 pages to 15.39 pages for affirmances. In 1993, the gap widened – 17.9 pages for reversals to 13.67 pages for affirmances. The next year, for the first time affirmances were slightly longer – 13.83 pages to 13.17 pages. In 1995, reversals averaged 16.18 pages to 15.38 pages for affirmances. In 1996, affirmances averaged 18.11 pages while reversals averaged 17.92 pages.
In Table 964, we track the majority opinions for the years 1997 to 2003. Once again, reversals were longer in five of seven years. In 1997, civil reversals averaged 11.86 pages to 11.63 for affirmances. The next year, reversals averaged 12.32 pages to only 9.78 for affirmances. In 1999, reversals were 13.61 pages to 9.72 for affirmances. In 2000, reversals averaged 12.86 pages and affirmances were 10.29 pages. In 2001, reversals averaged 14.29 pages to 13.31 pages for affirmances. In 2002, affirmances were 15.83 pages and reversals averaged 15.42 pages. In 2003, affirmances averaged 15.39 pages to 14.3 pages for reversals.
Join us back here next time as we review the trends in civil cases from 2004 to 2018.