Yesterday, we demonstrated that majority opinions have been getting somewhat longer on average in criminal cases at the California Supreme Court since 2007. Today, we turn our attention to the Court’s majority opinions in automatic death penalty appeals. These two inquiries are not entirely independent; yesterday we were working with overall criminal docket data, including the death penalty appeals. However, in most years non-death cases significantly outnumber death penalty appeals, so it seems unlikely that trends in death penalty cases could completely explain changes in overall criminal opinions.

Nevertheless, the average majority opinion in death penalty cases has been edging up in recent years. Between 2001 and 2005, majority opinions in death penalty cases were typically between 55 and 75 pages. For example, in 2001, non-unanimous death penalty appeals averaged 76 pages to 80.4 in unanimous decisions. In 2002, non-unanimous majorities averaged 55 pages to 74.11 for unanimous decisions. In 2003, non-unanimous majorities averaged 70.67 pages to 61.75 for unanimous majorities. In 2004, non-unanimous majorities averaged 73 pages to 62.53 for unanimous decisions. In 2005, non-unanimous majorities averaged 55 pages to 77.32 for unanimous decisions.

We report the data for death penalty majority opinions between 2008 and 2015 in Table 117 below. Opinion length was fairly flat in 2008 and 2009. In 2008, non-unanimous majorities averaged 58.33 pages to 76.22 pages for unanimous decisions. The next year, non-unanimous majorities were only slightly shorter, averaging 57.67 pages. Unanimous majorities averaged 70.86 pages. In the years since, non-unanimous majority opinions have increased in length somewhat, although unanimous majority opinions remained at about the same level. In 2010, non-unanimous majority opinions averaged 112.5 pages, to 81.41 for unanimous majorities. In 2011, non-unanimous majorities averaged 85.43 pages to 60.68 for unanimous decisions. In 2012, non-unanimous majorities averaged 71 pages to 76.52 for unanimous decisions.

In 2013, non-unanimous majority opinions averaged 103 pages in death penalty appeals. Unanimous majorities averaged 86.53 pages – a definite increase over the long-term trend. In 2014, non-unanimous majority opinions averaged 90.5 pages to 83.75 pages for unanimous opinions. Interestingly, in 2015, with two new members on the Court, the average length of majority opinions declined sharply. Non-unanimous majority opinions averaged 68.75 pages, the lowest level since 2009. Unanimous majority opinions averaged 60.46 pages – their lowest level since 2011.

Click here to view table. 

Join us back here next Thursday as we begin our consideration of a new issue in our continuing analysis of the decision-making of the California Supreme Court.