We have diligently followed the recent spate of press reports stemming from “research” conducted by Texas Watch purporting to show massive and improper opinion delay at SCOTX. Unlike Texas Watch, we at SMSB do not pretend to be nonpartisan, we are admitted and unabashed fans of SCOTX and its jurisprudence.

That said, we will be the first to acknowledge that SCOTX opinions take an exceedingly long time to issue, and any justification for this less than impressive pace (the Office of Court Administration (OCA)‘s estimate for the average time taken to issue an opinion last term from the petition filing was 700 days) is hard to defend in light of SCOTUS‘s ability to turn around most–if not every–opinion it issues well within two years from the date of filing (by way of example, the oldest opinion issued thus far during the Court’s present term was handed down 557 days after cert. was filed, and the oldest opinion issued during the Court’s 2006 term took 703 days to issue from cert. filing to opinion issuance). One explanation for this discrepancy is that each SCOTUS Justice has double the amount of law clerks in his chambers than do SCOTX Justices.

Recently, the Executive Director of Texas Watch, Alex Winslow (who is not a lawyer but does possess a bachelor’s degree in government), responded to an excellent op-ed penned by the Court’s Staff Attorney for Public Information that called into question the methodology employed by Texas Watch in conducting its research. Specifically, the Court’s staff attorney pointed to:

One watchdog—using numbers and a methodology it did not explain—calculated the time the court took to dispose of petitions at a few days shy of a year in the 2007 term. The OCA report to the Legislature puts that figure at 158 days—about 40 percent of what the watchdog stated it was.

The organization’s calculations determined the court took an average of 852 days last term to resolve cases from the filing to the opinion. OCA determined that figure was 700 days.

In his op-ed, Mr. Winslow responded to the inaccuracies in his group’s report by stating:

[SCOTX’s] taxpayer-funded spokesperson has attempted to assail our methodology and questioned our motives (“Court watchdogs getting facts wrong,” Thursday). Clearly, the [C]ourt is uncomfortable with the public scrutiny it has received in recent months.

* * *

Our research found that it took an average of 28 months for the [C]ourt to resolve a single case. The [C]ourt’s spokesperson claims it was 23 months. We stand by our research as accurate, but no matter how the [C]ourt wants to slice and dice the statistics, the bottom line is that it takes far too long for the [J]ustices to complete their business.

Perhaps Mr. Winslow can indulge us a little more “slic[ing] and dic[ing],” but the data relied upon by the Court’s “taxpayer-funded spokesperson” was not his own, but the OCA’s, which is the state agency statutorily mandated under Chapter 72 of the Texas Government Code to keep accurate statistics regarding the efficiency of the Texas judicial system. See, e.g., TEX. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 72.082 (Vernon 2005). And the “spokesperson” to which Mr. Winslow dismissively refers is a former appellate attorney–something Mr. Winslow has never been–who has long served the Court both ably and faithfully despite being woefully underpaid and misguidedly rooting for an obscure basketball program in the Pacific Northwest.

The OCA has no vested interest in shading the data one way or the other, their only concern and statutory duty is to accurately convey the current statistical state of the Texas courts to the branch of government that funds them, the Texas Legislature. What accountability infrastructure is in place to ensure the accuracy of Mr. Winslow’s data? Oh, that’s right, Mr. Winslow. Or perhaps the one attorney on the Texas Watch staff, who has been licensed all of four [whole] years.

As to the length of time it takes to issue SCOTX opinions in general, while admittedly too long by most any measure, I’ll defer to Justice Scalia’s excellent explanation of the job of an appellate court of last resort: “I’m not about to do justice for your client at the expense of creating injustice in hundreds of other cases that will never come before me that I will never see.” His point–analogized to Texas–is that the citizenry of Texas would likely prefer their Supreme Court Justices to be deliberate and thoughtful in crafting their opinions so as to prevent the inadvertent imposition of injustice in numerous lower court decisions that would subsequently rely upon a quickly-drafted yet necessarily slapdash opinion.

For the third time, we’ll reiterate that we agree that SCOTX take a long time to issue its opinions. But in pointing to this obvious concern, if Texas Watch were truly “nonpartisan” as it claims, it would acknowledge–as the Court’s staff attorney did–that during FY 2007, the Court managed to issue the greatest number of opinions since 2000 and the second highest number of majority opinions since 1999, all while operating with the equivalent of eight justices for almost two years between December 2000 and August 2005 due to Court turnover. It might also point out that, while an average of 700 days pendency is nothing to brag about, that is much better than it has been historically–by over a 1,000 days. See Stayton & Eubank, A Study of Pendency in Texas Civil Litigation, 33 TEX. L. REV. 70, 81 (1954).

If anyone is interested in reviewing the actual, accurate, and vetted data regarding SCOTX’s docket, go here to the OCA’s publication page to view the annual reports going back to 1996.

Thx to SCOTX for continuing to address this concern, and the Texas Appellate Law Blog