Statistical Review of the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2016-17 Term: Hints at what to expect this term

By: Rox Laird on September 11th, 2017

To get an idea of what to expect in the Iowa Supreme Court’s new term that begins this week, it’s worth reviewing some statistics from the 2016-17 term. Based on past performance, the justices will be like-minded on most cases, they will cleave into two camps when they sharply disagree, and Chief Justice Mark Cady will likely supply the deciding vote on many closely divided decisions.

That has been the pattern in recent terms since three justices were replaced in 2010 and Cady became Chief Justice. And, it seems likely to continue.

But, first, some overall statistics from the 2016-17 term that ended in June:

Overall statistics

The seven justices cranked out 182 opinions last term – including majority decisions, concurrences and dissents – in ruling on 116 cases. The court decided 98 civil and criminal cases, which is about par for the court, and 18 attorney discipline cases. Although the disciplinary cases have limited impact beyond individual lawyers, they require as much time as any other appeal and constitute about 15 percent of the court’s workload.

Since the creation of the Iowa Court of Appeals in 1976, the Supreme Court’s adjudicative (as opposed to administrative) workload has been eased. About 95 percent of appeals from the trial courts are diverted to the Court of Appeals, which decides about 1,200 cases each year.

The Supreme Court’s case load includes those direct appeals from trial courts it retains plus petitions for further review of decisions by the Court of Appeals. Forty-two percent of the cases decided in 2016-17 were direct appeals, whereas 35 percent were cases heard on petition for further review from the Iowa Court of Appeals.

The opinion output per justice varies by term. Justice Brent Appel was the most prolific author this term, writing 34 opinions (16 for the majority, six concurring opinions and 12 dissents). Justice Edward Mansfield was close behind, with 30 opinions (16 for the majority, four concurrences and 10 dissents).

Justices Appel, Waterman and Mansfield led in writing majority opinions, with 16 each; Zager was close behind with 15. Justices filing the most dissents were Appel (12), Mansfield (10) and Wiggins (nine).

Seventy-eight of the 116 cases, or about two-thirds of the total, were decided unanimously. The seven justices were divided in about a third of the cases.

When the court is divided

A distinct pattern is evident when the overall voting numbers are broken down by justice.

Cady not only leads the court as the Chief Justice but as the most reliable swing vote as well. Where Cady votes, you will almost always find a majority of the seven justices. In fact, Cady filed dissents in only three decisions, and those all came in partial concurrences/dissents.

Looking at just the 21 decisions where the court was split 4-3 and a single vote made the difference, a clear pattern emerges:

Three justices – Edward Mansfield, Thomas Waterman and Bruce Zager – were in the majority in 12 cases with the help of Cady’s vote, and they were in dissent in nine of those cases without it.

Three justices – Brent Appel, David Wiggins and Daryl Hecht – were in the majority in 10 of the 4-3 decisions thanks to Cady, but they were on the losing side in 11 cases without his vote.

Put another way, the Chief Justice supplied the fourth vote in all 21 of the rulings decided by a 4-3 vote, although some of those votes came in separate concurring opinions where Cady disagreed with aspects of the majority on some points.

Overall, looking at all non-unanimous decisions, the Chief Justice was most often in agreement with Justice Zager (70 percent of the time). Justices Appel and Hecht were in agreement 94 percent of the time; likewise, Mansfield and Waterman were in agreement 94 percent of the time.

When justices recuse

Appellate judges, from time to time, do not participate in a case because of a conflict of interest – real or perceived. Last term, Appel sat out five cases; Hecht, Waterman and Zager two each; Cady and Wiggins one each. Mansfield participated in all cases. The justices do not announce why they recuse themselves from a case; they simply do not show up at oral argument.

The court was particularly short-handed on the Des Moines Water Works case (on certified questions from the federal court in Sioux City): Justices Wiggins and Hecht did not participate. The remaining five justices were split 3-2. Had Justices Wiggins and Hecht participated, the outcome conceivably could have swung either way.

Statistics complied by Hilary Hippen-Leak, Director of Marketing and Library Services at Nyemaster Goode.

Overall Opinion Authorship:

4-3 Decisions Opinion Authorship:

Justice Agreement: Non-Unanimous Cases:

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On Brief is devoted to appellate litigation, with a focus on the Iowa Supreme Court, the Iowa Court of Appeals, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.
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