We have previously reported on the Sixth Circuit’s caseload and the trend toward the use of unpublished opinions. We’ve discussed that the number of published decisions per judge, the opinions that are the most important to create precedent, are fairly consistent throughout all circuits. But the latest statistics show an interesting trend toward the use of unsigned and unreasoned opinions.
The federal courts of appeals decided just over 35,000 cases on the merits last year, and those break down to about 4,300 published opinions, 7,000 signed but unpublished opinions, 18,700 unsigned but reasoned opinions, and 5,000 decisions without either reasoning or a signature. The vast majority of the unreasoned merits opinions come from the Eighth and Ninth circuits, and those summary dispositions make up nearly half of the decisions in those circuits. This continues a long-term trend towards the increasing use of such decisions:
The large jump in the past year is probably due to the federal appellate courts deciding thousands of more decisions in 2012 than the year before. And the number of published opinions in all circuits did fall in favor of unpublished opinions. (Notably, the Sixth Circuit was among those few that issued more published opinions in 2012 than in 2011.) But most circuits have dealt with these extra cases through unpublished, reasoned decisions. Only the Eighth and Ninth circuits actually issued fewer unpublished but reasoned decisions in favor of an additional 2,750 decisions that were both unreasoned and unsigned.
While many litigants may not care about having a signed or unpublished opinion, I have yet to have a client that was happy with a summary disposition on appeal. This begs the question of whether reducing the time to decide appeals through opinions without reasoning or explanation will hurt the public trust in the courts over the long term.
On a lighter note, the statistics also show that the Sixth Circuit was the home of the only oral disposition in all of the federal circuit courts in 2012. The Sixth Circuit has a history of oral decisions, in which the court would summarily affirm a decision at the conclusion of oral argument. That trend has largely now been wisely replaced with written decisions before oral argument. In other words, cases where the Court may have ruled on from the bench in the past are not even making the oral argument cut now (we have reported several times about the lower percentage of cases that now receive oral argument).