Last week, we began our study of the length of the Court’s opinions since 1990 with a look at the civil docket, looking at such questions as whether opinions are getting consistently longer or shorter, and whether longer dissents are related, all other things being equal, to longer majority opinions. This week, we’re looking at the Court’s criminal docket, beginning with Part 1 today: the years 1990 through 2003.
In Table 959, we report the average length of majority opinions, special concurrences and dissents each year. For these years, majority opinions in criminal cases have drifted downwards. Between 1990 and 1996, the average majority opinion was always between twenty and thirty pages. Between 1996 and 1997, the average dropped from 26.15 to 16.17, and it remained in the mid-teens in the years following. The two lowest years during this period were 1999 (14.45 pages) and 2003 (14.66 pages).
Special concurrences did not follow any consistent pattern. In 1990, the average concurrence was five pages. That dropped to 1.5 pages the following year, but rose back to 5.14 pages in 1994. The average was between three and four pages from 1998 to 2000, but rose to 4.55 in 2002 and 4.47 in 2003.
Dissents were fairly flat. Although the average was 6.29 pages in 1990 and 7.9 pages in 1994, the average was between three and four in 1991, 1992, 1995, 1997-1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003. The only additional upticks were in 1993 (4.13) and 1996 (5.89).
Not surprisingly, given the eight-to-ten page drop in the average majority opinion, the Court’s total pages per case – majority opinions, special concurrences and dissents – drifted downwards during the fourteen years from 1990 to 2003. In 1990, the Court averaged 37.26 pages per criminal case. As late as 1996, that number was still 36.04 pages. But then the number abruptly dropped by as many as ten to fifteen pages – 21.85 pages in 1997, 20.19 pages in 1999 and 23.09 pages in 2003.
Join us back here tomorrow as we review the criminal docket for the years 2004 through 2017 – and Happy New Year to one and all!