Friday, September 8, 2006
Report: Opinions Down, Overall Dispositions Up for High Court
Workload Statistics for 2005-2006 Year Show California Justices Productive Despite Vacancy, Illnesses
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The California Supreme Court filed fewer opinions this past year but disposed of more matters overall in comparison to 2003-2004, according to annual workload statistics released by the Administrative Office the Courts yesterday.
Based on data covering Sept. 1 through Aug. 31, the official court year for statistical purposes, the high court justices filed opinions in 103 cases, down from 123 last year.
But the justices disposed of about 925 more petitions in this reporting period than the previous one, acting on a combined total of nearly 10,200 petitions in original proceedings, petitions for review, and actions arising out of State Bar Court disciplinary proceedings.
Chief Justice Ronald M. George told the MetNews he was pleased with the court’s overall productivity, given the tremendous number of petitions to the court and the fact that one position on the bench had been vacant for six months—from the time Justice Janice Rogers Brown left the court last June to assume her appointment to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia until Justice Carol A. Corrigan stepped in to fill the vacancy this January.
Although pro tempore justices filled Brown’s vacancy before Corrigan’s appointment, they could not draft original opinions and so there was less output in that regard, George said.
He also explained that both Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Ming W. Chin were unable to participate in a number of oral argument sessions due to their respective physical ailments, and added that the significant drop in opinions from last year’s count was also due to last year having been unusually productive.
“I think we ended up being far more productive this year than I expected we would be able to be,” the chief justice remarked. “We’re happy anytime we exceed the 100 mark. And I will say with some pride that we always surpass the number of opinions issued by the U.S. Supreme Court in any given court year.”
The nation’s highest court, he noted, generally issues between 75 and 80 opinions per term, and has 2 more justices than the state’s highest bench does. And unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, this state’s high court has the burden of automatically reviewing all death judgments, he said, which involve lengthy briefing and lengthy records—the average transcript is 10,000 pages, with one recent case having an over 100,000-page transcript.
To improve the court’s productivity, George said he would like to see more funding allocated toward further reducing the backlog of capital cases and attracting the appointment of more counsel on those cases with additional compensation.
“These cases consume a lot of resources,” he said.
This last court year, 21 of the opinions filed by the justices involved automatic appeals arising from death judgments, including an opinion affirming the conviction and capital sentence of “Night Stalker” Richard Ramirez. Two opinions involved habeas corpus petitions arising out of death penalty judgments, while 29 opinions involved non-capital criminal cases and 51 opinions involved civil cases.
With respect to other matters, the statistics showed that dispositions in original proceedings—which comprise a major portion of the court’s workload prior to a grant of review—increased by 12 percent to more than 3,620, largely because the court dedicated additional resources to non-capital habeas corpus filings.
Additionally, the Supreme Court’s dispositions of State Bar Court matters rose by 68 percent in the last court year, from 577 to 972. This increase was primarily attributable to a jump in attorney resignations from 170 in the 2003-2004 court year to over 570 this last year. Resignations are effected when the State Bar submits an attorney’s written request for resignation to the high court, which then enters an order disposing of the matter.
Starr Babcock, Executive Director of the State Bar Member Services Division, told the MetNews that the spike in resignations was due primarily to the increase, effective this year, of inactive membership fees from $50 to $115. Babcock added that the inactive member fees had not been raised since 1986, and the resulting increase in resignations was neither surprising nor a cause for concern, given that most of those who resigned had been inactive for a significant length of time.
George said that the court, which resumed oral argument Tuesday after a break from hearing arguments in July and August, will continue to be productive going forward.
“Everybody is being very productive, and our newest justice, Carol Corrigan, has really hit the ground running and is certainly doing her full share of the case load at the court,” he remarked.
The court has issued statistics since 1996 based on a Sept. through Aug. court year, which best corresponds with the flow of its opinion production.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company