Despite hard cases, Supreme Court displays remarkable degree of unanimity

June 25

The end of the Supreme Court’s term is when we expect closely divided opinions in controversial cases.  With opinions yet-to-be-released on the contraception mandate (Hobby Lobby), buffer zones at abortion clinics (McCullen), union dues (Harris) and recess appointments (Noel Canning), this term is unlikely to be an exception.  Yet the stark disagreements in a handful of high-profile cases should not overshadow the real story of this Supreme Court term: A remarkable degree of unanimity.

The Supreme Court has decided 69 cases after oral argument so far this term. A full two-thirds of these decisions, 46, have been unanimous in the judgment. Even if the court splits 5 to 4 in the four cases that remain, the court will still have decided 63 percent of its cases without dissent this term.  Such a degree of unanimity is unheard of in recent years, as I noted here.  The last time the court was unanimous in the judgment in a majority of cases was OT2005, and then the court only hit 55 percent.

The degree of unanimity on the court is even more remarkable given that the court continues to accept certiorari in a smaller number of cases.  Thirty years ago the court might decide 150 cases per term.  This year there will only be 73 cases decided after oral argument.  As the court’s docket shrinks, the cases that remain tend to present the most difficult legal issues.  This court rarely reaches out to accept certiorari petitions, focusing its efforts in areas where there are genuine circuit splits.  And if issues have split lower appellate courts, they are more likely to provoke disagreement on the High Court.  Nonetheless, we see a court unanimous in the judgment over 60 percent of the time.

As the percentage of unanimous cases has gone up, the percentage of cases decided 5 to 4 has declined, but not as much. Thus far the court has split 5 to 4 in only 9 of 69 cases, or 13 percent of those decided after oral argument, but the justices are almost certain to be closely split in some or all of the cases that remain.  Still, assuming all four of the remaining cases come down 5 to 4, only 18 percent of the Court’s cases this term will have been decided by one vote, which will be the smallest percentage of 5-4 cases since OT09.

When he was confirmed as chief justice, John Roberts said that he hoped to encourage a greater degree of unanimity on the court.  Whatever the future holds, it appears that during this term at least, the chief justice has accomplished this goal.

Jonathan H. Adler teaches courses in constitutional, administrative, and environmental law at the Case Western University School of Law, where he is the inaugural Johan Verheij Memorial Professor of Law and Director of the Center for Business Law and Regulation.
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Eugene Volokh | June 25