« Ind. Decisions - Still more on the Elkhart Four appeals | Main | Ind. Courts - More on "Dead woman’s video statement to cops admissible" »

Monday, April 28, 2014

Ind. Courts - Analysis of the Indiana Supreme Court’s First Quarter Opinions (Civil Cases)

Commentary by Joel Schumm, professor at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law

This is the civil companion to the April 11 post analyzing criminal opinions. As was done there, the following chart considers the timing of opinions, authorship and unanimity, and whether the Court of Appeals and trial court were affirmed or reversed in the cases decided last quarter.

Indiana Supreme Court Opinions (Civil Cases): Jan. 1, 2014 - March 31, 2014*
  Days from
to Grant
Grant to
Oral Arg.
Oral Arg
to Opinion
Grant to
Total Time Majority Author Dissent COA Trial Ct.
Amer. Cold Storage 83 105 215 --- 403 BD U A R
Veolia Water 71 84 315 --- 470 SD U R/A A/R
Steiler Ent. v. Evansville 56 105 131 --- 292 BD LR, RR R R
S.D. (CHINS) 42 55 104 --- 201 LR U R R
Yost v. Wabash 79 47 296 --- 422 BD RR A/R A/R
Mitchell v. 10 & Bypass 51 168 161 --- 380 RR U R R
Fayette Co. v. Price 73 84 119 --- 276 BD U R R
E.M. (TPR) 45 63 134 --- 242 LR RR R** A
Adoption of T.L. 51 --- --- 208 259 MM U R A
Moryl v. Ransome 153 --- --- --- 153 BD U R R
Hardiman 58 --- --- 166 224 MM U R A
G.P. (TPR) 38 49 154 --- 241 SD U R R
Justice v. Amer.Fam. 38 171 179 --- 388 MM BD A/R R
S.B. (TPR) 51 --- --- 48 99 PerCur U R R
I.P. (TPR) 28 --- --- 48 76 PerCur U R R
Front Row Motors 136 --- --- 133 269 RR U R** R
Averages 66/60 93 181 121 275        

Nine Month Average

The wait from arrival at the Supreme Court to the rendering of an opinion ranged from less than 100 days in two cases involving the due process safeguards when a magistrate presiding over a termination of parental rights hearing resigns before reporting recommended findings and conclusions to the judge, which were decided by per curiam opinions (S.B. and I.P.), to more than a year in American Cold Storage, Veolia Water, Yost, and Justice. The average of 275 days was remarkably similar to the 278 days for criminal cases.

As with criminal cases, that time period can be broken into three general categories, which do differ in some respects between civil and criminal cases. The shortest period in both types of cases is from the transmission of a case to the Supreme Court to a decision on whether to grant transfer. This took an average of two months in civil cases,*** compared to only three weeks in criminal cases. As explained in the April 11 post, most civil cases are delayed a few weeks while a memo is prepared by staff attorneys in the Supreme Court Administration office. Decisions to grant transfer were generally made more quickly in child cases (for example, only 28 days in I.P. and 38 days in G.P.).

After transfer is granted, oral argument is generally scheduled, although the order setting argument may not be issued for several weeks or longer. Arguments were heard in less than two months in two child cases (S.D., a CHINS case, and G.P., a termination of parental rights case) but took nearly six months in two other cases (Mitchell and Justice). The average delay from transfer grant to oral argument was 93 days, which is significantly quicker than the 140 days in the criminal cases decided last quarter. Perhaps most remarkable here is rendering of opinions in 38% (6 of 16) of civil cases without oral argument.

Finally, after hearing oral argument, the Indiana Supreme Court decided civil cases in as short as 104 days (in S.D., a CHINS case) to more than ten months in Veolia Water. The average was 181 days (or 202 days in non-child cases), which is significantly longer than the 133 days in criminal cases.

More Unanimity

Although only six of the nine criminal opinions (67%) were unanimous, unanimity was higher in civil cases at 75% -- or twelve of the sixteen cases. As in the criminal cases, Justice Rucker was the most likely dissenter, disagreeing with his colleagues on liability of a college for injuries during a pledging “incident” in Yost, the constitutionality of the Evansville smoking ban (Steiler Ent.) by joining Justice Rush’s dissenting opinion, and in a termination of parental rights case (E.M.) in which he would have reversed the trial court because “this is not a game of horseshoes and close is not good enough. In order to terminate a parent’s parental rights the State must prove its case by clear and convincing evidence.”

Unlike in criminal cases, cases with dissenting opinions did not take longer on average to decide than those decided by unanimous opinions. The cases with dissenting opinions were resolved 185 days after oral argument, which is remarkably similar to the 181 day average for all civil cases.

Finally, consistent with the overall criminal case decision time, the two per curiam opinions were the quickest to receive a decision (an average of only 88 days), which is expected because the Court usually issues per curiam opinions in straightforward cases in which the justices are unanimous.

Low Affirmance of Both Trial Courts and Court of Appeals

Although trial courts were largely affirmed in criminal cases, they fared much more poorly in civil cases before the Indiana Supreme Court, which affirmed trial courts in only 5 of 16 — or 31% of cases. The Court of Appeals fared even more poorly, pulling out a partial affirmance in only 3 of 16 — or 19% of civil cases.

Deference to Trial Court Judgments — not Procedural Errors

As noted in the previous post, the importance of deferring to trial courts was emphasized in at least two of the criminal cases. In Keck, which was decided along with Robinson, Justice Massa explained:

when it comes to suppression issues, appellate courts are not in the business of reweighing evidence. And we reiterate that principle today; our trial judges are able to see and hear the witnesses and other evidence first-hand. But the appellate bench, in a far corner of the upper deck, doesn’t provide such a clear view. Remote from the hearing in time and frequently in distance, we review a cold paper record. Thus, unless that record leads us to conclude the trial judge made a clear error in his findings of fact, we will apply the law de novo to the facts as the trial court found them.
Similar language appeared in a termination of parental rights case (E.M.), where Justice Rush wrote for the majority:
Decisions to terminate parental rights are among the most difficult our trial courts are called upon to make. They are also among the most fact-sensitive — so we review them with great deference to the trial courts, recognizing their superior vantage point for weighing the evidence and assessing witness credibility. Because a case that seems close on a “dry record” may have been much more clear-cut in person, we must be careful not to substitute our judgment for the trial court when reviewing the sufficiency of the evidence.
The higher reversal rate of trial courts, though, is explained by the procedural claims decided by the court in several cases. As explained above, the two per curiam reversals involved the lack of due process when a magistrate presiding over a termination of parental rights hearing resigns before reporting recommended findings and conclusions to the judge. Front Row Motors set aside a default judgment for lack of jurisdiction because a party did not receive notice of a hearing. G.P. reversed a termination of parental rights order because a mother was “denied her statutory right to counsel during the course of the CHINS proceedings below and those proceedings flowed directly into an action to terminate her parental rights and (in a separate action) adopt out her child.”

One quarter provides a fairly small frame of reference for the not-so-newly-comprised Court, which will soon mark 18 months together. Nevertheless, its recent opinions suggest its willingness to reverse for a variety of procedural violations while generally affirming on claims in which the trial court is perceived to be in a “superior vantage point.”

* The first five columns in the chart consider the number of days for various time periods of each appeal to the Indiana Supreme Court: transmission on transfer to grant of transfer; grant of transfer to oral argument; oral argument to opinions; transfer grant to opinion (for those cases without oral argument); and the total amount of time. If one or more of these steps did not occur in a case, the box was left blank. The next two columns address the authoring justice (by initials) and any dissenting justices. U=unanimous opinion; C=concurring opinion. Finally, the last two columns consider whether the outcome of the court of appeals’ opinion and the trial court’s decision were affirmed or reversed by the supreme court.

** In both of these cases, the Court of Appeals dismissed an appeal, a ruling reversed by the Supreme Court, which then addressed the case on its merits — reversing the trial court in one case and affirming the trial court in another. More broadly, these statistics focus on the claims addressed on transfer by the Supreme Court — and do not include a partial affirmance (A) if the Court of Appeals was summarily affirmed on one or more issues by the Supreme Court.

*** The 66 day statistic includes the 153 day outlier in Moryl — a case in which transfer was granted on the same day the opinion was issued. Otherwise, the average was 60 days.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 28, 2014 02:59 PM
Posted to Schumm - Commentary