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Sixth Circuit Caseload Keeps Pace with National Trends

Posted in News and Analysis

Since 1997, the federal courts have maintained annual statistical profiles for each of the 12 circuits of the U.S. Court of Appeal and the 94 U.S. district courts, together with statistical totals for those courts.  In recent days, the newest compilation was published for the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2012.  The Sixth Circuit Appellate Blog has examined that data, with an eye toward the last year’s activities and developments in the Sixth Circuit.

During the previous fiscal year, the U.S. Court of Appeals witnessed an overall 4.3% growth in the number of appeals filed.  The most significant categories of appeals experiencing growth were criminal appeals (+12.1%) and administrative appeals (+11.1%), and one category actually decreased: prisoner appeals (-4.2%).  Active judges wrote an average of 181 written decisions, over half of which were unsigned, the total of which represented a 16.8% increase over the previous year.  Despite the general growth in appellate activity across the U.S. Court of Appeals and despite the fact that the U.S. Court of Appeals collectively experienced 165.8 vacant judgeship months during this period, the median time from the filing of the notice of appeal to final disposition actually decreased to 9.8 months, representing a nearly 11% reduction from the previous year.

So how does the Sixth Circuit measure up?

To begin, together with the Eighth Circuit, the Sixth Circuit was fortunate in that it experienced zero vacant judgeship months.  By way of comparison, every other circuit experienced some degree of vacant judgeship months, and the D.C. Circuit topped out at 35.5 months, with the Ninth Circuit close behind.  As did every other circuit save for the Second, Seventh and Tenth Circuits, the Sixth Circuit’s caseload increased: 4,855 appeals were filed, representing a 2.8% increase from the previous year.  This figure represents steady but modest growth as compared to the national average (4.3%), although it is lower than the Fourth and Eleventh Circuits, which experienced a significant jump in appeals (+9.3% and +12.3%, respectively).  However, as compared against the previous five years — in which the Sixth Circuit’s annual growth rate was negligible or even negative — the 2.8% increase is substantial.  Following the national trend, each category of appeal increased, with the exception of prisoner appeals, which decreased modestly.

Sixth Circuit judges spent a fair amount of time writing during the past year, generating an average of 146 written decisions, which represents a substantial 21.7% increase over the previous year, yet which in absolute numbers still fell beneath the national average.  The federal courts provide numerical standing for each of the circuit courts, and the Sixth Circuit hovers between 3 and 8 (out of 12) as to each category of comparison (e.g., number of appeals filed, number of appeals terminated, etc.).  One notable exception stands out, however: the Sixth Circuit ranked 11th in the median time from filing to final disposition, averaging 14.7 months.  As mentioned above, the national average in this regard was 9.8 months, and the speediest circuit — the Eighth Circuit — boasted a median time of only 5.5 months.  (The slowest circuit was the Ninth Circuit, with a median time of 15.3 months.)

On balance, these statistics show that the Sixth Circuit was a busy court over the last fiscal year, and, in most statistical categories, the court ranked in the median as compared to its sister circuits.  As we have discussed before on this blog (see here and here), the Court is certainly cognizant of the time period between notice of appeal to opinion, and it is continuing to refine its procedures to work on lower that number (and the substantial increase in number of opinions per judges shows an important step in that direction).