Some Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Reversal Rate
Every term, commentators attempt to predict the outcomes of the cases in the Supreme Court docket. The statistics, however, suggest that the betting person’s answer should be reversal. According to a recent article in Slate, and based on SCOTUSBlog data (2004 term, 2005 term, 2006 term):
Overall, this past term the Supreme Court reversed 75.3 percent of the cases they considered on their merits. The pattern holds true for the 2004 and 2005 terms as well, when the Supremes had overall reversal rates of 76.8 percent and 75.6 percent, respectively.
It is interesting how remarkably constant the reversal percentage is — 75%. It suggests that the Supreme Court primarily takes cases it wants to reverse, with only a few exceptions. Assuming the Court takes about 70 cases a term, it will only affirm in about 17 of them. So perhaps the new game for commentators should be listing those 17 lucky cases that will get affirmed.
Much ado has been made of the 9th Circuit’s dubious honor of having the most cases reversed or vacated — 19 out of 22 this term. But the 9th Circuit decides an incredibly large number of cases, and it typically has the most cases of any circuit before the Court. So it is likely to be victorious every year in terms of numbers of cases reversed. One must look at its reversal percentage to get a better picture, and it typically exceeds the average of about 75% by being between 80 and 90%. However, as the Slate article points out, in 2004 and 2005, “the 9th was reversed 84 percent and 88.9 percent of the time, or about a case or two more each year than it would have been if it had conformed to the reversal rate of the other circuits.” In other words, the 9th Circuit’s bad reversal reputation is largely earned because it’s big.
I wonder whether the Supreme Court’s reversal rate of 75% is a recent phenomenon or existed throughout its history. Does anybody know of where to find stats on reversal rates beyond recent times?
Another interesting statistic, but surely not one easily compiled, would be to examine the percentage of cases contrary to Supreme Court precedent that lead to a grant of cert. Judging from the 9th Circuit statistics, it decides about 6000 cases per year, and the Court takes about 20. That’s 0.3%. If that rate holds true generally — that the Court is taking just a fraction of one percent of cases, it can mean one of two things: (1) the Court is ignoring many cases in which lower courts depart rather overtly from Supreme Court precedent; or (2) lower courts are doing a remarkable job of staying in line with the Court.
It is doubtful that a statistic exists for cases that depart overtly from Supreme Court precedent and their likelihood to result in a grant of cert, and such a tally would necessarily involve some subjectivity, but it would be interesting to find out. Assuming that the Court takes about 70 cases per year, and reverses in 75% of them, that’s only about 53 cases. Many of those cases are reversed not because lower courts clearly contravened Supreme Court precedent, but for other reasons such as circuit splits or issues of first impression. Only a handful, then, are reversed for involving significant departures from Supreme Court precedent. Can it be that there are only a handful of such cases? Or is the Court just ignoring the others?