It’s been nearly three months since the start of the Texas Supreme Court’s fiscal-year term. How are things going at the one-quarter mark?
As of Monday morning, there were just two signed decisions this Term. With the opinions released Monday afternoon for Allcat, there are now three — and the Term’s first separate opinion. Along the way, there have also been five per curiam decisions. (The click-through table is on DocketDB.)
A slow start was to be expected, given the small number of cases carried forward this Term. (( Only one of those has been decided: Sharyland Water Supply Corporation v. City of Alton, et al., No. 09-0223. ))
But the conventional wisdom is that the Court always has a slow start in the fall (the first quarter), as it absorbs new law clerks. Similarly, the conventional wisdom suggests that the summer (the fourth quarter) is the busiest for opinions, as the Court tries to clear the decks before the end of the fiscal year.
Do the numbers bear this out?
I took a look at the last five years of opinions, distinguishing between signed opinions and per curiam opinions. I figured out what percentage of each year’s opinions fell into each fiscal “quarter” — 1Q (September to November), 2Q (December to February), 3Q (March to May), and 4Q (June to August). The table below represents the average of those years. (( Yes, it’s just five years. Appellate geeks — like sports nuts — often trade in sample sizes far too small to be “significant.” ))
As expected, the signed opinions increase as you progress through the quarters: roughly 10%, 20%, 30%, and 40%. By contrast, the per curiams show a slight dip in the first quarter and then are split almost evenly among the remaining three quarters.
Why the difference here?
The per curiams show a dip in the first quarter and then are fairly steady for the rest of the Term. That seems to bear out the idea that it takes a little time to get new law clerks up to speed.
Why do signed opinions show a much more pronounced pattern? One answer might be that signed opinions tend to follow argued cases and are thus dependent on the Court’s highly seasonal argument scheduling. (In recent years, arguments have been scheduled from September through March or April.)
Less obviously, the two types of decisions have different effects on the Court’s statistics if carried forward from one Term to the next. Signed opinions tend to show up as “causes” and thus are highlighted when they linger. By contrast, per curiam opinions usually result from petitions granted only at the moment the opinion issue issued — and that, before that time, were just part of the general petition pool. With those incentives, it is not too surprising if the Court prioritizes signed opinions as the summer winds to a close.