It’s still Cady’s Court: Our statistical review of the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2015-16 term

by Ryan Koopmans | August 25, 2016

By Ryan Koopmans

Here’s a look at the Iowa Supreme Court’s 2015-16 term, by the numbers.  If there’s a theme this year, it’s what we put in the title: It’s still Cady’s Court. In addition to being the Chief–which, by itself, is enough to give the Court it’s name–Chief Justice Cady was in the majority in all but three cases and in every case but one in which the justices split 4-3.  So where Cady goes, the Court goes.

Basic Case Stats: The Iowa Supreme Court issued opinions in 96 cases this term; three additional cases were dismissed, and one case (State v. Pettijohn) was held over for the 2016-17 term.  (See our previous post: SCOTUS ruling on blood-alcohol tests leads Iowa Supreme Court to delay boating-while-intoxicated case until next term.)

Of those 96 cases, 13 were disciplinary orders (10 of them related to attorneys and 3 related to judges), so that leaves 83 appeals (the type of cases that we normally think of when discussing Iowa Supreme Court decisions). That’s consistent with the caseload for past terms: 83 appeals in the 2012-13 term, 87 in 2013-14, and 86 in 2014-15.

As far as subject-matter goes, the 83 appeals break down into these (sometimes rough) categories: 45 civil; 35 criminal; and 3 juvenile.

Direct Appeal vs. Further Review: Iowa has a deflective appellate system, which means that even though we have an intermediate appellate court (the Court of Appeals), all trial-court appeals go to the Supreme Court, which then decides whether to keep the case or transfer it to the Court of Appeals. Most cases (over 95%) are transferred, but the losing party at the Court of Appeals can ask the Supreme Court to grant “further review” of the Court of Appeals’ decision.

This term, 55% of the Supreme Court’s cases (46 of the 83) took that path: they were transferred to the Court of Appeals and then reviewed by the Supreme Court. That’s a slight change from past terms.  Since the Iowa Supreme Court started the term system (and until this year) the Supreme Court’s further-review docket has represented less than half of its appeals: 43% in 2012-13; 43.6% in 2013-14; and 46.5% in 2014-15.

The Supreme Court’s criminal docket this term was almost entirely a further review docket.  Of this term’s 35 criminal cases, seven were screened for direct Supreme Court review, but two of those case were certiorari proceedings (meaning that it wasn’t the typical criminal appeal) and one was an interlocutory ruling (again, not typical).  Of the four standard appeals, one (State v. Walden) was a review of a district court’s order dismissing a criminal charge as time barred (another usual order), and another case (State v. Querrey) was just a tag-along to the Supreme Court’s decision last term in State v. Louisell.  So that leaves just two criminal cases that were heard directly by the Supreme Court–State v. Seats and State v. Senn.  Both were decided on 4-3 vote and both involved constitutional issues.  So the takeaway, it seems, is that if the Supreme Court doesn’t transfer a criminal case to the Court of Appeals, it’s either an unusual ruling or a hotly contested issue.  (In Senn, the justices split 4-3 on the outcome but 3-1-3 on the legal reason for the outcome.)

Dissent: The Cady Court continues to disagree more than its predecessors.  This term, a third of the Court’s decisions (28 of 83) were non-unanimous.  That’s in line with the three previous terms but comparatively high if we look back before Chief Justice Cady took the helm and Justices Waterman, Mansfield, and Zager joined the Court in 2011.  From 2006-2010, the justices disagreed in just 7% of their cases (excluding disciplinary cases).  That equates to about eight non-unanimous decisions per year.  Since the 2012 term, the Court has been  issuing an average of 30 non-unanimous decisions per year.

Because the Iowa Supreme Court generally hears the most important–and often most difficult appeals–it’s not surprising that the justices are disagreeing as much as they are.  It’s perhaps more surprising that they used to agree as much as they did.  So the fact that the justices continue to disagree more often isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, the opposite is probably true–dissenting opinions keep the justices on their toes and keep the majority opinions tighter.  (On that subject, here’s what Justice Ginsburg said after Justice Scalia’s passing: “We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation.”)

Justice Agreement: The justices continue to break down into fairly consistent voting blocs, with Justices Wiggins, Hecht, and Appel agreeing with each other most of time; Justices Waterman and Mansfield agreeing with each other most of the time; and Chief Justice Cady and Justice Zager usually going back and forth between the two groups–and thus usually deciding which group is in the majority. The chart below shows how often each justice agreed with his colleagues in the non-unanimous cases.

2015-2016 Term: Justice Agreement – Non-Unanimous Cases
Wiggins Appel Hecht Waterman Mansfield Zager
Cady 50% 61% 61% 46% 46% 54%
Wiggins 89% 82% 18% 18% 32%
Appel 93% 21% 14% 36%
Hecht 21% 14% 29%
Waterman 86% 64%
Mansfield 64%

Chief Justice Cady’s numbers, in particular, are the mark of a swing justice.  All of them fall around the 50% mark–meaning that he agreed with each one of his colleagues about half the time when the vote was split.  And when he did agree with his colleagues, they almost always found themselves in the majority.  As noted in the opening, Chief Justice Cady was in the dissent just three times this term.  And in the 19 cases that were decided on a 4-3 vote, the Chief was in the majority every time but one.  An 18-1 record. (The Cady Court, indeed.)

Here’s how often the other justices found themselves in the majority this term when the vote was spit:

2015-2016 Term: Percentage in the Majority – Non-Unanimous Cases
 Cady Wiggins Appel Hecht Waterman Mansfield Zager
 89% 61% 71% 71% 50% 43% 57%

Opinion Authorship: As he often is, Justice Mansfield was the most frequent opinion writer this term, authoring a total of 26 opinions.  Justice Wiggins (who was the most prolific writer last year) wrote 25 opinions, while Justice Appel garnered the most majority opinions (16) and Chief Justice Cady wrote the most concurring opinions (5).  The full list for opinions authored by each justice is below.  Combined–and including three per curiam opinions–the justices authored 147 opinions in 96 cases.  Taking out the disciplinary decisions, the justices wrote 135 opinions in 83 cases, for an average of 1.6 opinions per case.

2015-2016 Term: Opinion Authorship – All Cases
  Majority Concurring Dissent Total
Cady 10  5 1 16
Wiggins  14  2 9  25
Hecht  13  1  4  18
 Appel  16  2  4  21
Waterman  15  2  6  23
 Mansfield  14  2  10  26
 Zager  10  2  3  15




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