Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The semester break has allowed me to catch up on some of the things that I've been meaning to write about. One of those is the greatly reduced number of cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in recent terms. The New York Times' Linda Greenhouse remarked on this in a December 7, 2006, column, "Dwindling Docket Mystifies Supreme Court." She notes that the Court has taken 40 percent fewer cases so far this term than last. "The number of cases decided with signed opinions last term, 69, was the lowest since 1953 and fewer than half the number the court was deciding as recently as the mid-1980s."
One might have hypothesized that this was a demand-side phenomenon: a conscious decision on the part of the justices, not just a happenstance of the number or quality of the cases presented to the Court for resolution. But Ms. Greenhouse offers a supply-side explanation: "The federal government has been losing fewer cases in the lower courts and so has less reason to appeal. As Congress enacts fewer laws, the justices have fewer statutes to interpret. And justices who think they might end up on the losing side of an important case might vote not to take it." And she notes that there has been a decrease "in the number of appeals filed on behalf of the federal government by the solicitor general's office." In the 2000 term that office filed 24 petitions, of which the Court granted 17. The SG filed only 10 petitions last term, of which the Court granted 3. "This term, the solicitor general has filed 13 petitions; the Court has granted 5, denied 3, and is still considering the rest."