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US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has released his end of the year message for 2019, and the Appendix is a brief summary of the "workload of the courts".

I noticed that the plots suggest that while the Supreme Court cases filed almost doubled between 1984 and 1994, the cases argued there nearly halved.

Is this a reflection of any major changes in the manor that the court handled their caseload? If so, were the changes procedural, cultural (if a court can have a culture) or something else?

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    This may also be on-topic in Politics SE, but it's hard for me to judge where best to post without knowing the answer at least roughly. If this turns out to be off-topic here just let me know and I'll move it myself. Thanks! – uhoh Jan 1 at 4:07
  • The number of cases filed isn't relevant. The Supreme court picks and chooses the cases it wants to rule on. (99+% are silently rejected) - As to the number argued, that's a more interesting question. – SurpriseDog Jan 20 at 20:05
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    @SurpriseDog irrelevant with respect to what? Chief Justice Roberts felt it was relevant enough to report, I find it relevant enough to ask about. – uhoh Jan 20 at 23:55
  • related in meta politics.meta.stackexchange.com/q/4263/16047 – uhoh Jan 24 at 5:00
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    Possible reason for increase (have to research more before answering) between 84 and 94, 4 justices and the chief justice were all replaced. With such a large changeover (and attendant lowering of the (average) age of the court), a change in the amount of writs of cert's produced may have increased. – CGCampbell Jan 24 at 18:14
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Between 1984 and 1994 US Supreme Court filings almost doubled but arguments nearly halved. Why?
Is this a reflection of any major changes in the manor that the court handled their caseload? If so, were the changes procedural, cultural (if a court can have a culture) or something else?

There were several changes, thus some of each of procedural, cultural [and] something else.

EXPLAINING THE SUPREME COURT’S SHRINKING DOCKET 1
RYAN J. OWENS & DAVID A. SIMON

ABSTRACT

In recent years, the United States Supreme Court has decided fewer cases than at any other time in its recent history. Scholars and practitioners alike have criticized the drop in the Court’s plenary docket. Some even believe that the Court has reneged on its duty to clarify and unify the law. A host of studies examine potential reasons for the Court’s change in docket size, but few rely on an empirical analysis of this change and no study examines the correlation between ideological homogeneity and docket size.

In a comprehensive study, the authors analyze ideological and contextual factors to determine the conditions that are most likely to influence the size of the plenary docket. Drawing on empirical data from every Supreme Court Term between 1940 and 2008, the authors find that both ideological and contextual factors have led to the Court’s declining plenary docket. First, a Court composed of Justices who share largely the same world view is likely to hear forty-two more cases per Term than an ideologically fractured Court. Second, internal and external mechanisms, such as membership change and mandatory jurisdiction, are also important. Congress’s decision to remove much of the Court’s mandatory appellate jurisdiction is associated with the Court deciding roughly fifty-four fewer cases per Term. In short, the data suggest that ideology and context have led to a Supreme Court that decides fewer cases. [Emboldening added.]

The Court’s docket is not likely to increase significantly in the near future. Unless Congress expands the Court’s mandatory appellate jurisdiction or the President makes a series of unconstrained nominations to the Court that increase its ideological homogeneity, the size of the Court’s docket will remain relatively small compared to the past. Because the Court’s case selection process is an important aspect of the development of the law, this Article provides the basis for further normative and empirical evaluations of the Court’s plenary docket.


Solicitor General: Supreme Court's shrinking caseload due to fewer laws enacted by Congress, November 2, 2007.

The Supreme Court’s diminishing caseload is likely a reflection of a preceding fall-off in new legislation by Congress, U.S. Solicitor General Paul Clement ’92 speculated in remarks delivered at Harvard Law School’s fall reunion exercises. Fewer new laws mean fewer lawsuits challenging or seeking clarification of new legislation, he said.

[...], Clement said: “The explanation which I think has the most explanatory force is that there is a sense in which the Court’s docket, particularly in the statutory area, is a kind of time-lag reflection of Congress’s activity.” Adding that the lag between a new congressional act and Supreme Court litigation over it is typically about 10 years, he said: “Congress 10 years ago was not passing as much new, landmark legislation as they were before.”

This chart of enacted laws, by each Congress with a 5-Congress (or 10-year) centered moving average, is based on Statistics and Historical Comparison and shows the decrease in laws enacted.

Enacted laws


The caseload peaked in 2006. The decrease in caseload may be the result of fewer disagreements among the circuit courts. One basis for appeal to the Supreme court is a difference with another circuit court. Without that disagreement, it may not be worthwhile to file an appeal.

Supreme Court Caseloads, 1880-2015

This image is the caseload from 1975-2015.

Cases filed 1975-2015


1 Ryan J. Owens and David A. Simon, Explaining the Supreme Court's Shrinking Docket, 53 Wm. & Mary L. Rev. 1219 (2012), https://scholarship.law.wm.edu/wmlr/vol53/iss4/4

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  • Thanks for your answer about the reduced docket; any thoughts on the parallel increase in filings over the same time period? – uhoh Jan 24 at 14:09
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    @uhoh - The OT 84 and OT 94 figures are outliers; that is, OT 84 is below the trend and OT 94 is above the trend. The interactive chart at Supreme Court Caseloads, 1880-2015 makes that apparent. – Rick Smith Jan 25 at 23:32

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