This post is the first in a series of posts analyzing the 2013-14 term of the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
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Last week the court heard the first oral arguments for its 2014-15 term. Now that this new term has arrived, we will spend some time over the next few weeks in a series of posts reviewing what the court did last term.
The Court’s Caseload. In 2013-14, the court released 61 merits opinions (i.e., not OLR decisions, decisions on reconsideration, dismissals as improvidently granted, or affirmances by an equally divided court). This opinion total is generally on par with the court’s work in 2010-2011 and in 2011-2012. The 2012-2013 term had an exceptionally low number of opinions. Of the 61 cases heard in 2013-2014, 32 were criminal, and 29 were civil.
The Authorship of Opinions. Justice Roggensack wrote the most majority opinions this year (11), while the Chief Justice authored the fewest (7). The Wisconsin Supreme Court assigns opinions by lot, see SCOWIS IOP II.F., and, if the vote count changes, an opinion is reassigned, see id.
Yet, even with the fewest assigned majority opinions, the Chief Justice remained the most prolific justice on the court, authoring 6 concurrences, 26 dissents, and 1 other opinion for 33 total separate writings. No other justice authored even half that many separate writings. Justices Bradley and Prosser were the only two other justices with more than 10 separate writings. Justice Gableman authored both the fewest total opinions (11) and the fewest separate writings (1).
The Release of Opinions. While the first opinion of the term was released in November, over two-thirds of the opinions were not released until July, even though by June 30 all opinions were approved for mandate. The court’s habit of backloading its work appears to be getting more and more prevalent every year. The last two opinions of the 2013-2014 term were not released until August, which is actually the beginning of the current term. The court has not released a merits opinion as late as August during at least the last 20 years. (All the court’s associate justices joined the court within the last 20 years.) Typically opinions are released no later than July. The last opinion for each of the last three terms was released on July 18, 17, and 26.
Justice Bradley was the first justice to release an opinion this year (November 6) and the first one to release her final opinions (July 16). Justice Prosser was the second justice to release the last of his opinions.
A number of factors can affect when the court releases its opinions. For example, justices have a nearly unfettered right to hold an opinion for further consideration by the court. SCOWIS IOP II.G. Also, unanimous opinions are approved by the court much more quickly than divided opinions. Of the first nine opinions, only one drew a dissenting vote (though some drew concurrences). By contrast, only one of the last 19 opinions drew no dissenting vote.
The court’s system of distributing opinions by lot, plus changes in vote counts, also can affect a justice’s workload. For example, though Justice Roggensack was the second-to-last justice to release her first opinion (mid-July) and her last opinion (late-July), she had the most majority opinions of the term (11).