Stability, evenness, predictability – these are ways, perhaps surprising to some, to describe recent trends in the state appellate courts of New York. Whether speaking of affirmance rates, total number of records filed, or motions handled, trends in those courts show little change.1
Starting from the busiest state appellate court – Appellate Division, Second Department
Take for example affirmance, reversal, and modification figures for civil cases in the busiest state appellate court, the Appellate Division, Second Department, handling appeals from the counties of Queens, Kings, Richmond, and several other down-state counties. Over the past three years, affirmances have not strayed beyond the range of 17 to 19 percent of dispositions, reversals have hovered between 7 and 8 percent, and modifications have held steady at 3 percent. It should be remarked that the balance of Second Department dispositions is composed largely of appeals withdrawn prior to argument, and even that percentage remains even, moving between 64 and 68 percent between 2011 and 2013. The number of overall civil dispositions also remained relatively flat over those years, with the Second Department handling 9,246 in 2011, 9,020 in 2012, and 8,681 in 2013.
Following with the Appellate Division, First Department
The Appellate Division, First Department, handling appeals from the counties of New York and Bronx, also tends to tack to fixed ratios. Dispositions of civil cases over the period of 2011 to 2013 have been between 50 and 51 percent for affirmances, 15 and 16 percent for reversals, and 11 and 13 percent for modifications. Dismissals and other outcomes constitute the remaining balance. As with the Second Department, the overall amount of dispositions has held fast: 2,057 in 2011, 2,329 in 2012, and 2,261 in 2013.
Criminal appeals in the Appellate Division, First and Second Departments
Criminal appeals in the First and Second Departments show a similar trend of regularity. In the First Department, affirmances have been between 70 and 73 percent, while reversals and modifications, respectively, have been between 4 and 7 percent and 4 and 5 percent. In the Second Department, affirmances have ranged more substantially, from a high of 40 percent in 2011 to a low of 31 percent in 2012. Reversal percentages remained relatively even between 3 and 5 percent, and the plurality or majority of Second Department criminal cases are disposed of prior to argument, with that proportion ranging between 44 and 52 percent.
A Closer look at the New York Court of Appeals statistics
New York’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is also, at least in terms of statistical outcomes, a model of consistency. One might expect more randomly distributed statistical outcomes, given that the legal questions reaching this court are, by and large, exceedingly close. Yet, from 2011 to 2013, the range in civil cases has remained within 50 to 54 percent for affirmances, 27 to 30 percent for reversals, and 6 to 10 percent for modifications. Criminal appeals to the Court of Appeals show more variation, with affirmances being about 58 percent in 2011 and 2012 and 65 percent in 2013, and reversals and modifications combined being 38, 40, and 33 percent for 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively.
General outcomes and trends across all state appellate courts
A look further into the past bears out the theme of stability of outcomes in New York’s state appellate courts. For example, in 2005, of a total 1,982 civil dispositions, the First Department affirmed 51 percent of the time, reversed in 16 percent of cases, and modified judgments 11 percent of the time. In 2001, for 2,129 civil dispositions, these figures were, respectively, 53, 15, and 11 percent. In 2005, the Second Department disposed of 9,086 civil appeals, with 20 percent affirmed, 9 percent reversed, and 4 percent modified. Again, the majority of civil appeals, 60%, were withdrawn. In 2001, outcomes in the Second Department were similar to recent years: of 8,402 dispositions, 21 percent resulted in affirmance, 10 percent were reversals, and 4 percent were modifications.
In addition to being notably stable in the percentages of certain outcomes, New York’s state appellate courts may surprise observers with the sheer volume of their caseloads, the Second Department being by far the busiest. There, in 2013 alone, 11,180 motions were decided – more than 30 per day. That court also conducted 1,726 oral arguments, averaging about 7 each business day. Even at that galloping pace, the court is outstripped by the rate at which records are filed, an annual average of about 3,920 over the past three years. By comparison, the First Department handled an average of 5,240 motions per year, heard an average of 1,250 oral arguments, and received an average of 2,696 new records. Not surprisingly, the workload of the New York Court of Appeals was far less, with annual averages being 1383 for motions decided, 218 for oral arguments held, and 265 for new records filed.
What is shown by these records – all available at the website of the New York Unified Court System – is a remarkable, year-to-year consistency in New York’s state appellate courts. They also reflect on the quality of the appeals filed and the skill of the judges sitting in the courts of original instance. Specifically, in the Second Department for the years 2011 to 2013, there were about 1.7 times as many decisions affirmed as there were decisions reversed or modified. That figure was approximately 1.8 in the First Department. Clearly, each appeal rises or falls on its own merits, but knowing the general outcomes and trends in the appellate courts is one more resource at the disposal of the advocate, enhancing his or her understanding of the courts that may control the outcome of their client’s case.
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1The Reports of the Chief Administrator of the Courts discussed in this blog cover the years 2011 through 2013, with a brief look back to Reports of 2001 and 2005. These reports can be accessed here.