A report released this month by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals confirms what many lawyers already know: More than half of the cases the court considers are criminal in nature, and the vast majority of appeals are generated by the Lone Star State, which shares the court with Louisiana and Mississippi.
But there are a few surprises in the Clerk’s Annual Report: July 2011 - June 2012, which covers July 2011 through June 2012.
For example, the number of new appeals filed during that time period was up 1.2 percent, rising by 89 cases for a total of 7,626, compared to 7,537 for the period from July 2010 through June 2011.
However, the court issued 3,024 opinions during the 2011-2012 time period, down by 168 opinions from 3,192 for the period July 2010 through June 2011.
There’s a reason why filings can go up at the court, while opinion totals can go down at the same time, says 5th Circuit Judge Carolyn Dineen King. “I think there’s some lag time between when the incoming cases show up and when that begins to manifest itself in more opinions,” says King, noting that it can take well over a year for the court to issue an opinion in some appeals.
The statistics show that 66.6 percent of the new filings at the court came from Texas — 5,077 out of 7626 filings total.
The Western District of Texas showed the biggest jump in filings over the period from July 2010 through June 2011. The Western District sent 1,344 appeals to the 5th Circuit, 76 more cases than 1,268 the previous time period, according to the report.
“We don’t have any choice over the cases. We don’t grant cert in this court,” King notes. “We take the cases that come our way, and they have a very heavy criminal docket in the Western District.”
5th Circuit Judge Edith Jones says the court’s criminal docket has a big impact on the yearly statistics. And the criminal filings could explain why the court could see a spike in new appeals filed during a year in which the court issued a lower number of opinions overall.
“I would have to speculate that it has to do with the number of criminal cases. Some of those are disposed of in ways that do not necessarily show up as opinions,” Jones notes.
And sometimes a decision from a previous year ends up opening up a new theory for appeal the following year, she says.
“Every year the court is coming out with new decisions that affect sentencing and give the defense bar new avenues of challenging convictions,” Jones says. “It’s an evolving area.”
--- John Council