The Supreme Court Cuts Back

March 17, 1992

The Supreme Court recently completed scheduling cases for the 1991-1992 term. The number of opinions that will be handed down for the term will be the smallest in over 20 years. In the 1970s, the court averaged 140 decisions a year. In the 1980s, it averaged 151. Last term (1990-1991), the court handed down 120 opinions. This year's total could be only slightly more than 100.

Something is going on, and it is not that Americans have quit filing lawsuits and appeals. In fact, there have been more requests of the Supreme Court to hear cases this term than ever.

There are several reasons for this slimmed down schedule. For one thing, in 1988 Congress eliminated mandatory review of several classes of lower court decisions. So the justices can vote not to hear cases now that they would have been required to hear before.

Also, the solicitor general asks the court to hear fewer cases than in the past because the government is more satisfied with lower court decisions now than before. And that is because the Reagan-Bush era has produced conservative courts in every federal circuit.

Reagan-Bush appointees, plus present vacancies, add up to majorities in every circuit but one -- and in that one (the Ninth, the Pacific region), 14 of the 28 judges are Reagan-Bush appointees and a 15th judge is a Richard Nixon appointee. The Fourth Circuit, which includes Maryland, will soon have eight (of 15) Reagan-Bush judges, plus one Gerald Ford and one Nixon appointee.

This judicial monolith means fewer disagreements between circuits on important questions. The Supreme Court is expected to resolve such disagreements. The fewer there are, the less work for the justices. Their conservative ideas about the law are being imposed for them by other judges.

Few things a president does have more long-lasting impact than the selection of appeals court judges, especially to the Supreme Court. Two-thirds of all appellate judges now on the bench are Reagan-Bush appointees. Three-quarters of all of them are appointees of Republican presidents. Another full term for George Bush could result in an appellate judiciary that is 90-plus percent a product of GOP presidents. That could give the Supreme Court even less to do in the future.

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