RALEIGH — The N.C. Supreme Court ruled on fewer than 60 cases in 2010 and issued no more than 80 opinions in any of the past five years. That’s one of the key findings in a first-of-its-kind compilation of state court data from the John Locke Foundation.
The “overwhelming” majority of opinions during the study period were unanimous, though a closer review of split decisions revealed two distinct voting blocs.
“There is an appropriate focus on greater transparency in government, yet this focus often does not extend to the judicial branch,” said report co-author Daren Bakst, JLF Director of Legal and Regulatory Studies. “That’s despite the fact that the state’s highest court issues legal opinions that have a critical impact on North Carolinians. This report, hopefully, will be one step in making the work of the judicial branch more understandable and accessible.”
Bakst, attorney Philip Romohr, and JLF research intern John Calvin Young examined “merit opinions” the state Supreme Court issued from 2006 to 2010. These were opinions that answered a legal question in a case. The list did not include cases dismissed for procedural reasons.
Justices handed down 78 merit opinions in both 2006 and 2007, 80 in 2008, 64 in 2009, and 59 last year. Most of these cases were so-called “cases by right,” in which the Supreme Court was required to act. No more than 22 cases in any year were so-called “discretionary review” cases, which the Supreme Court chooses to hear.
“In 61 percent of the merit opinion cases, the Supreme Court agreed with the N.C. Court of Appeals and affirmed its decision,” Bakst said. “Justices were much more likely to reverse an Appeals Court decision in discretionary review cases. A likely reason for this result is that the Supreme Court is more apt to take discretionary cases from the Court of Appeals that it wants to reverse.”
While the rate of unanimous decisions reached as high as 85 percent in 2008, the rate of unanimity dropped over the past two years. “After three years of roughly 80 percent to 85 percent unanimous agreement, justices agreed unanimously in 66 percent of cases in 2009 and 63 percent last year,” Bakst said.
Despite the high level of unanimity, split decisions highlighted two voting blocs. Associate Justices Edward Brady, Robert Edmunds, Mark Martin, and Paul Newby made up one four-member bloc on the seven-member court. Associate Justices Robin Hudson and Patricia Timmons-Goodson constituted the second bloc.
“No combination of two justices in the four-member bloc agreed less than 73 percent of the time in split-decision cases,” Bakst said. “Justices Hudson and Timmons-Goodson agreed with each other 79 percent of the time in those same cases.”
The blocs tended to disagree in split-decision cases, Bakst said. “There were no two justices from the separate blocs who agreed more than 36 percent of the time in split-decision cases,” he said. “In split-decision cases, Justices Newby and Timmons-Goodson agreed only 12 percent of the time.”
Edmunds and Martin ended up in the majority more than the other justices. Hudson and Timmons-Goodson were least likely to vote with the majority.
Chief Justice Sarah Parker was more likely to join the four-member bloc, Bakst said. “It’s important to note, though, that her votes were the most difficult to predict with respect to her agreement with the other justices.”
Supreme Court justices are elected in nonpartisan races, though the two major parties typically support opposing candidates. Each of the members of the four-member bloc is a Republican. Parker and the justices in the two-member bloc are Democrats. In 2010 voters chose Barbara Jackson, a Republican, to replace the retiring Brady.
Bakst and his co-authors did not attempt to draw broad conclusions from the data. “Instead we lay out useful information about the Supreme Court’s work that is probably unfamiliar even to most attorneys in the state,” Bakst said. “There is still much that can be done, including analyzing individual cases before the N.C. Supreme Court in order to assess the impact and rationale of decisions.”
“As more information becomes available and is compiled and packaged in a meaningful manner, the public is better able to hold judges accountable for their work on behalf of North Carolina and its citizens,” he added.”
Daren Bakst, Philip Romohr, and John Calvin Young’s Spotlight report, “The N.C. Supreme Court: A look at the inner workings,” is available at the JLF website. For more information, please contact Bakst at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].