SCOTUS By The Numbers: Recapping the 2017 Term


The U.S. Supreme Court finally wrapped up its October 2017 term June 27, and the numbers are in.

Liberals are distraught about Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement announced June 27, but the numbers show this term wasn’t pretty for liberals even with Kennedy on the court.

Liberals Lose

Although Kennedy was considered the swing justice, tipping the balance one way or the other, he didn’t side with the liberals in any 5-4 case this term.

Of the 18 one-vote decisions this term, only three broke in favor of liberals. In two, Roberts crossed over to give the liberals the win. In the other, it was Justice Neil M. Gorsuch.

Thirteen cases ended with Roberts, Kennedy, Gorsuch, and Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the majority and Ginsburg and Justices Stephen G. Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan in dissent.

The justices in the majority the most this term were Roberts, Kennedy, and Gorsuch—all appointed by Republican presidents.

All four of the justices in the majority the fewest times were appointed by Democratic presidents.

Historically Low Output

The number of signed opinions from the court has been steadily declining since the 1980s. But the court’s 59 signed opinions this term will be fewest since 1864, when the court issued just 56 signed opinions, according to Adam Feldman of Empirical SCOTUS.

The court agreed to hear 66 cases this term, but ended up issuing only 59 signed opinions.

Two cases settled after the justices agreed to review them.

Two resulted in unsigned opinions on behalf of the full court. In one, the court simply affirmed the denial of a preliminary injunction in a closely watched partisan gerrymandering case, and sent the case back for further review. In the other, the court vacated the lower court decision with instructions to dismiss the case as moot after Congress passed legislation ending the dispute.

The court also “dismissed as improvidently granted” a Fifth Amendment case after argument, split 4-4 in a tribal case after a late-discovered recusal, and sent the original travel ban case back to the lower court after the administration tweaked the ban.

Abysmal Circuit Records

Of the 59 cases, approximately 40 percent came from just three sources: the U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Seventh and Ninth Circuits, and state courts.

The Supreme Court typically accepts a lot of cases from the Ninth Circuit and state courts. This year was no exception; the court took nine and eight cases, respectively.

The Seventh Circuit saw the number of its cases under review jump drastically. Last year the court took just two cases from the circuit; this year it took seven.

But the Supreme Court affirmed three of them. The 43 percent win record is an outlier, because the court is generally more likely to reverse the ruling below than affirm it.

This term, the court affirmed just 16 times—a mere 27 percent win rate.

Several courts finished with a 0 percent win record, including the First, Third, Fifth, and Sixth Circuits, and district courts.

Slow Pace

The justices also took unusually long to release decisions after oral argument.

The court started off slow, and maintained that pace throughout most of the term.

The Supreme Court has overshot its scheduled closing date five times since Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. took over in 2005—the last time was in 2012.

The average time from argument to decision was 109 days.

The contentious and complex issues before the court—including the legality of President Donald Trump’s travel ban and the puzzling issue of partisan gerrymandering—could explain the delays.

The court’s longest time from argument to opinion this term was in one of the partisan gerrymandering cases. It took 258 days for Roberts to pen that 9-0 decision.

The shortest time was an opinion by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is known for her lightning fast speed in writing opinions. She turned around her 9-0 opinion in a civil procedure case in just 29 days.

Divided SCOTUS

The nature of the cases before the court also showed in the vote breakdowns.

In the average term, the court rules unanimously about half the time. Last term was particularly agreeable; the justices were unanimous 57 percent of the time.

This term, the court was unanimous in just 20 cases, about one-third of the time.

The court decided almost as many cases by 1 vote—18—as it did unanimously.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kimberly Strawbridge Robinson in Washington at krobinson@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jessie Kokrda Kamens at jkamens@bloomberglaw.com