Some Thoughts on the Supreme Court’s Reversal Rate

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7 Responses

  1. Mike Dimino says:

    Lee Epstein, et al., The Supreme Court Compendium 244-45 (4th ed. 2007) has the data for the 1946-2004 Terms. There have been reversal rates over 70% in the 1962-65, 1968, 1983, 2001 and 2003 Terms, with many Terms in the high-60s.

    It stands to reason that there would be more reversals than affirmances if, as I believe to be the case, the Justices take cases either (1) to reverse or (2) to resolve a conflict. If they take equal numbers of those cases, and if the conflicts cases yield an equal number of reversals and affirmances, one would expect a 75% reversal rate.

  2. These are all interesting trends and questions that political scientists have researched in useful ways. Although it is not my personal cup of tea, the names that came to my mind – from the grad school days – were Tannenhaus, Ulmer and Songer. Their statistical research focused on predicting whether or not the Supreme Court would grant cert. Looing over 40-50 years of data, they found the Court was more likely to grant cert when a lower court issued a ruling in conflict with a Supreme Court decision or if there was conflict between circuits. Cert is also much more likely to be granted when the federal government is party to a suit. I think more recent studies note the importance of the presence of a civil rights or liberties claim.

    But you are right with respect to subjectivity. Ulmer tried to distinguish between direct and partial conflict and made some other distinction between conflict that was “weak” or “strong.”

    Still, the working generalizations in political science remain (and have long been): Most federal cases begin and end in the district courts. Most appeals result in the decision of the lower court being uhpeld. If the Court decides to give a case further consideration, the odds of reversal increase significantly.

  3. barkleyg says:

    So, if Sonia Sotomayor had 6 cases, out of over 300 decisions, heard before the Supreme Court, and 3 were over tuned, that would mean that her 50% reversal rate would be way higher than the Supremes usual 75% reversal rate.
    And the REPUGS have the nerve to question her brains and if she is competent to be a Supreme Court!


  4. medlaw says:

    “In other words, the 9th Circuit’s bad reversal reputation is largely earned because it’s big.”

    Sorry but that’s not what the numbers say. The percentages say that the 9th circuit is getting reversed at a significantly higher rate than the other circuits taken as a whole. I don’t have a full data set but let’s work off the numbers cited in the article above.

    70 cases in an average term
    reverse rate of 75%
    70 x .75 = 52.5 (I know we can’t have a 1/2 reverse but let’s just go with it for simplicity sake)
    19 out of 22 9th cir. reversed
    which means,
    33.5 out of 48 for the rest of circuits.

    Assuming the above numbers, the reversal rate is 86.3% for the 9th circuit and 69.7% for the other circuits. That’s a statistically significant reversal rate … and one that is not due solely to the size of the circuit (i.e., the number of 9th circuit cases going up on appeal).

  5. wayne says:

    The sentence “In other words, the 9th Circuit’s bad reversal reputation is largely earned because it’s big.”
    seems to be ambiguous since it is not clear whether “it” refers to the court or to its reversal rate.