This installment is the second in our series on the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s 2017-18 term.  For the previous installment, click here.

The United States Supreme Court made headlines earlier this year for getting behind on its work.  Fortunately, Wisconsin’s supreme court has been trending in the opposite direction.  What is behind this development?

We wrote in December 2014 about the Wisconsin court’s new opinion drafting procedure.  As we discussed then:

  • A series of deadlines and flowcharts now govern each stage of the opinion-writing process and limit the timing of opinion revisions.
  • Justices no longer, as they once did, discuss draft opinions in conference, unless a majority of the court affirmatively votes to do so.
  • Justices can no longer place indefinite “holds” on the release of the court’s opinion.
  • Separate writings may be released after majority opinions, if necessary (though we haven’t seen this happen yet).

While the new procedure drew considerable criticism when it was adopted, the court has been releasing opinions faster since then.  By the end of April 2018, the court had released 28 opinions, nearly half of the cases that it decided during the term. By the end of June, the court had released 90% of its opinions, leaving only five decisions to be released in July.  By comparison, in the last term when the court did not use this procedure, two-thirds of its opinions had not been released by the end of June, and two opinions were not released until August.

While we cannot say with certainty that the new procedure is entirely responsible for the improvement in timely completion of the court’s work, the pre-2014 and post-2014 trends are notable.  Between the 2000-01 term and the 2006-07 term, the average number of days between oral argument and decision was 130 days. This number was 149 between the 2007-08 term and the 2013-14 term.

Two years ago it was 136 days; last year it was 132.  Last term?  The court released opinions at the blistering rate of 120 days after argument, on average.  Whatever the merits of the new opinion drafting procedure, the court’s new diligence is most welcome.