Supreme Court of New Jersey Year in Review- 2019-2020

The Appellate Division issues, annually, reports of statistics regarding its previous court year, such as this one. The Supreme Court, to my knowledge, does not, though a few figures appear in reports such as this one. Accordingly, this blog is for the first time attempting to compile some detailed statistics regarding the preceding Supreme Court Term. Any errors in the analysis that follows are mine alone.

In the 2019-20 Term, the Court issued 68 full opinions, which decided a total of 87 appeals, since some opinions dealt with more than one appeal on the Court’s docket. The Court’s decision in Whelan v. Armstrong Int’l, Inc., 242 N.J. 311 (2020), summarized here, was a big contributor to that total, since that single opinion encompassed seven separate appeals. Nearly two-thirds of those opinions, 45, were in civil cases, while 23 rulings dealt with criminal appeals.

The Court granted review in 82 appeals, since the final appeal that the Court took up, New Jersey Republican State Committee v. Murphy, 243 N.J. 574 (2020), discussed here, was appeal number A-82 for the Term. Thus, the Court kept pace with its docket.

Twenty of the Court’s decisions were on appeals granted review during the 2019-20 Term. Another 47 decided appeals came to the Court during its 2018-19 Term. One decision, covering two appeals, State v. Alessi, 240 N.J. 501 (2020), dated back to a grant of certification in February 2018, during the 2017-18 Term. That case was argued in November 2018, re-argued in October 2019, and decided in January 2020.

In terms of how appeals reached the Court, the vast majority were on grants of certification. Eight decisions resulted from grants of leave to appeal (in one instance accompanied by a grant of certification). In four appeals, Appellate Division dissents enabled an appeal to the Supreme Court as of right, though in one of those appeals the Court also granted certification. Three appeals came to the Court on questions certified by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and one (New Jersey Republican State Committee) involved direct certification while the case was pending in the Law Division.

The breakdown between decisions affirming and those reversing rulings below is surprisingly close to 50-50. There were 27 affirmances and 29 reversals, with another eight decisions affirming in part and reversing in part. The three opinions that dealt with questions certified by the Third Circuit necessarily did not involve an affirmance or reversal, jut a response to the certified question(s). Finally, as noted above, the New Jersey Republican State Committee case, came to the Court on direct certification from the Law Division, before that court had made any ruling.

Breaking down the rulings by civil vs. criminal appeals, there were 30 decisions in civil appeals that either clearly affirmed or clearly reversed. In twenty of those, the Court reversed rulings below, while the other sixteen resulted in affirmances, a 55.6% reversal rate. There were twenty clear affirmance or reversal decisions in criminal appeals, with eleven affirmances and nine reversals, a 55.6% affirmance rate. (Decisions that affirmed in part and reversed in part are not included in these figures).

The Court’s workload was spread fairly evenly among the seven Justices. Justice LaVecchia wrote the largest number of opinions of the Court (that is, unanimous or majority opinions), a total of eleven. Justice Solomon followed with ten such opinions, Justices Albin and Fernandez-Vina each produced nine, Justice Patterson had eight, and Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Timpone each had seven. Six opinions were issued per curiam, and in one case, N.J. Transit Corp. v. Sanchez, 242 N.J. 78 (2020), the Court split 3-3, so that there was no majority opinion. There, Justice Patterson wrote a concurring opinion for one group of Justices, while Justice Albin penned the dissent for the other group.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the past Term is the relative unanimity of the Court’s decisions. Of the 68 opinions issued, 52 (more than 75%) were unanimous. Seven others were by votes of 6-1 and one other ruling was by a 5-1 vote. In only eight of the opinions was there more than one dissenter (there were two 5-2 opinions, four opinions decided 4-3, one opinion split 3-2, and the one 3-3 vote).

Justice Albin had the greatest number of dissenting opinions, a total of seven (in six of those cases, he was the lone dissenter). Chief Justice Rabner followed with four (in two of which he dissented alone), Justice LaVecchia had two, and Justices Patterson, Fernandez-Vina, and Solomon each had one. Justice Timpone issued no dissenting opinions.

Overall, there were a total of 29 dissenting votes (including the total number of Justices who joined a dissenting opinion) during the past Term. Eleven of those were cast by Justice Albin. Justice LaVecchia was in dissent four times, Chief Justice Rabner and Justices Fernandez-Vina, Solomon, and Timpone registered three dissenting votes, and Justice Patterson voted in dissent just twice.

Unlike in the Supreme Court of the United States, our Court has no predictable voting blocs, based on party affiliation or otherwise. In two of the four 4-3 decisions, the dissenting group was Justices LaVecchia (author of the dissent), Albin, and Timpone. Another group of dissenters– Justice Albin (the dissent’s author), Chief Justice Rabner, and Justice Timpone– appeared in one of the other 4-3 decision. The last of the 4-3 dissents, written by Justice Solomon, was joined by Justices Patterson and Fernandez-Vina.

Overall, the Justices lined up in numerous different ways when the Court was not unanimous. At different times, Justice Albin was joined in a dissent by the Chief Justice and/or Justices LaVecchia, Solomon, and Timpone. Justice LaVecchia, when she dissented, was at different times in the company of Justices Albin, Solomon, and Timpone. Justice Solomon dissented together with Justices LaVecchia, Patterson, and Fernandez-Vina at different times. The three other Associate Justices each teamed with two other Justices at different times in dissent, while Chief Justice Rabner’s only dissenting partner, in just one case, was Justice Timpone.

Finally, most of the Court’s rulings were issued between about 90-150 days after oral argument. Some opinions took less time, such as those affirming on the Appellate Division’s opinions below, and the Republican State Committee case, which was decided seven days after oral argument given the emergent nature of that appeal. The longest time between oral argument and decision was about 8-9 months, which occurred in only a few instances. An outlier, Alessi (discussed above), was the only matter decided in the past Term that involved re-argument.