Supreme Court of New Jersey Year in Review, 2020-2021

Last year, for the first time, this blog offered an analysis of the Supreme Court’s activity in the just-ended Term. It’s now time to do that for the 2020-2021 Term. As before, any errors in the discussion that follows are mine alone.

The Court issued 66 full opinions, covering a total of 69 appeals. The decisions were split close to 50-50 between civil and criminal appeals, with 32 civil and 34 criminal matters.

The Court granted review in 78 cases, since the final docket number of the Term was A-78-20. Thus, newly-granted reviews marginally exceeded the number of appeals decided during the Term.

Of the decided cases, 21 were granted review during the just-completed Term. A total of 40 cases had been granted review during the 2019-2020 Term. Finally, one case, Flanzman v. Jenny Craig, decided on September 11, 2020, just days after the end of the 2019-2020 Term, was a holdover from the 2018-2019 Term.

As is so in pretty much every year, the majority of cases came to the Court on grants of petitions for certification. Three decisions resulted from grants of leave to appeal, and two rulings arose out of dissents in the Appellate Division. Two more cases, In re Release of Certain Pretrial Detainees and State v. Vega-Larregui, came to the Court via expedited procedures. In the former case, an order to show cause was filed directly with the Court, rather than being presented on a petition for certification or motion for leave to appeal. In Vega-Larregui, the Court granted direct certification, enabling the case to bypass the Appellate Division.

Affirmances outnumbered reversals in the Court’s rulings, with 32 affirmances and 28 reversals. Six other cases entailed affirmances in part and reversals n part or other particular outcomes. Breaking those figures down by civil and criminal appeals, the results in civil appeals were evenly split, with 14 affirmances and 14 reversals. Criminal appeals saw 18 affirmances and 14 reversals.

Authorship of opinions was, in general, spread out fairly evenly among the Justices. Chief Justice Rabner and Justices Patterson and Solomon each wrote ten opinions. Justices LaVecchia and Fernandez-Vina penned nine opinions each, while Justice Albin wrote eight. Justice Pierre-Louis, who joined the Court at the start of the Term, was given a lighter workload as she acclimated herself to service on the Court. She authored five opinions. Five other opinions were issued per curiam.

Fully fifty of the Court’s 66 opinions were unanimous. The non-unanimous decisions broke out as follows: six cases were decided by 4-3 votes, five by 5-2 votes, two each by 6-1 and 5-1 votes (the latter involved a recusal of one Justice), and one matter, State v. Lodzinski, ended up in a 3-3 tie. As discussed here, the Court recently granted reconsideration in Lodzinski and brought Judge Fuentes up from the Appellate Division to give the Court seven jurists.

As was so last Term, the “great dissenter” of the Court was Justice Albin. He filed ten dissenting opinions. Justice LaVecchia authored three dissents, while Justices Patterson (dissenting in part), Solomon, and Pierre-Louis each wrote one dissenting opinion. Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Fernandez-Vina did not issue any dissenting opinions this past Term.

In terms of the total number of dissenting votes, including both dissents authored by a Justice and those in which s/he joined, Justice Albin registered fourteen dissenting votes, Justice LaVecchia eight, Justice Pierre-Louis four, Justice Patterson three, Chief Justice Rabner and Justice Fernandez-Vina two, and Justice Solomon only one.

The lineups of the Justices in non-unanimous cases varied widely. Justice Albin was the only Justice to dissent alone, doing so in four cases. In the five 5-2 cases, Justice Albin wrote three of the dissents, in two of which Justice Patterson joined and in the third Justice LaVecchia signed on. The two other two-Justice dissents were Justices Pierre-Louis (the author of the dissent) and Albin, and Justice LaVecchia (the author) and Albin. All but one of the three-Justice dissents were written by Justice Albin (Justice LaVecchia wrote the remaining dissent). Two of Justice Albin’s dissents were joined by Chief Justice Rabner and Justice LaVecchia, and two others by Justices LaVecchia and Pierre-Louis. Justice LaVecchia’s dissent in a 4-3 case was joined by Justices Albin and Pierre-Louis.

Finally, despite the administrative and logistical problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Court generally issued its rulings within 2-1/2-5-1/2 months after oral argument. Some rulings, of course, were issued more quickly. Those included the cases in which review was granted on an accelerated basis and those where the Court ruled by substantially adopting an opinion below. Decisions that took longer often involved dissents, which necessarily cannot issue as quickly as unanimous opinions. And some of Justice Pierre-Louis’s opinions took longer than the general run of decisions, doubtless owing to her adjustment to her new role.