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Iowa Supreme Court 2020-21 statistical review: Christensen Court thinks outside voting blocs

by Rox Laird | July 26, 2021

After two previous terms marked by historic turnover due to retirements, deaths, and new appointments, the Iowa Supreme Court closed the books on the 2020-21 term last month with all seven justices serving the entire term.

Thus it’s possible to observe some trends among new members of the Court as well as the veteran justices based on a statistical review of the cases decided this term. In sum, with a full term with a full complement of justices now completed, the Christensen Court is more diverse in thought, and less predictable, than in some years past when justices sorted themselves into distinct voting blocs.

First, the overall numbers from the 2020-21 term:

The Court decided 119 cases, which is a bit larger than in recent terms. Eighty-four cases were decided unanimously; in 35 cases the justices were split, and in 11 of those they were divided 4-3. The average time between when cases were submitted and when they were decided was 86 days.

The Court heard 50 cases on further review, affirming the Iowa Court of Appeals in 46% of those cases, and reversing in 38%. The Court heard 50 cases on direct review, affirming District Courts in 48% of the cases and reversing in 25%.

Some voting patterns emerged during the term indicating how likely members of the Court are to agree with one another on how cases should be decided.

For example, Justices Edward Mansfield and Thomas Waterman — two of the longest serving members of the Court — agreed with each other 91% of the time when the Court was divided on the outcome of a case. None of the other members of the Court agreed with another justice that regularly.

By comparison, the next-highest rate of agreement was between Chief Justice Susan Christensen and Justice Matthew McDermott, who were in agreement on 77% of the divided decisions. Justice Brent Appel, who wrote 18 dissents, more than any other justice by far, also had the lowest rate of agreement with the other justices.

 

Three justices stood out for the number of opinions they wrote last term that spoke for a majority of the Court as a percentage of the total number of opinions each of the three wrote, including dissents and concurrences.

Justice Dana Oxley wrote 15 opinions, 14 of which were for the majority. Justice Oxley authored just one dissent and no concurrences.

Justice Waterman wrote a total of 22 opinions, of which 90 percent were for a majority. He wrote only one dissent and one separate concurrence.

Justice Mansfield wrote 23 opinions, of which 78 percent spoke for a majority of the court, and he filed three dissents and three concurrences.

By comparison, Chief Justice Christensen wrote 18 opinions, of which 72 percent were for a majority; Justice Christopher McDonald wrote 30 opinions, 60 percent of which were for the majority; and Justice McDermott wrote 25 opinions, 60 percent of which were for the majority.

Justice Appel, the longest-serving member of the Court, wrote 41 opinions, the most of any member of the Court, but only 14 of these opinions were for a majority, or 34 percent. Justice Appel filed 18 dissents and nine concurrences.

Five justices — Waterman, Mansfield, McDonald, Oxley, and McDermott — were most often in the majority in the 11 cases decided 4-3, but Justice McDonald wrote five of those decisions, more than any other justice. Chief Justice Christensen and Justice Appel voted with the majority in three of the 11 cases decided 4-3.

Statistics compiled by Holly Mitchell, Nyemaster Goode.

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