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Friday, April 11, 2014

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

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

Has the unanimity that marked the first year of the newly comprised Indiana Supreme Court continued? Is a year an unusually long time to wait for an opinion from the Indiana Supreme Court? This post tackles both questions and more through an analysis of opinions in criminal cases decided in the first quarter of 2014.*

The parties, lawyers, and interested public have been waiting more than a year for an opinion in the high profile Brewington v. State case. The case was transmitted to the Indiana Supreme Court on March 26, 2013. Oral argument was held September 12, 2013. Nearly seven month later, still no opinion. Although I won’t predict an outcome, based on the oral argument questioning and subsequent delay I would be surprised if the opinion is unanimous; the writing of separate opinions and accompanying revision(s) of the draft majority opinion generally add considerably to the time it takes to decide a case.

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 criminal cases decided last quarter.

Nine Month Average

The wait from arrival at the Supreme Court to the rendering of an opinion ranged from 167 days in an appeal from the State involving credit time (State v. Lotaki) to nearly a year in the high profile Christopher Smith v. State appeal that addressed a principal’s failure to “immediately” report child abuse. The average was 278 days.

That time period can be broken into three general categories. The shortest period is from the transmission of a case to the Supreme Court to a decision on whether to grant transfer. This took only two and a half weeks in some cases to just under two months in the only juvenile delinquency appeal decided last quarter. Adult criminal cases are generally sent directly to each justice to evaluate before the Court’s weekly conference, while juvenile delinquency (and most civil cases) are delayed a few weeks while a memo is prepared by staff attorneys in the Supreme Court Administration office. Excluding the one juvenile appeal, the court took an average of just three weeks to make a transfer decision.

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 as short as two months (Robinson) or as longer than six months (Smith and Coats). The average delay from transfer grant to oral argument was 140 days.

Finally, after hearing oral argument, the Indiana Supreme Court sometimes decided criminal cases in as short as two months (Alexander) or longer than six months (Robinson). The average was 133 days.

Decline in Unanimity

Only six of the nine opinions (67%) were unanimous. Inman generated a concurring opinion from Justice Massa, while Robinson and Smith each generated dissenting opinions written by Justice Rucker. Not surprisingly, the cases with separate opinions took longer (an average of 171 days from oral argument) than the unanimous opinions, which were issued more quickly (only 104 days after argument). Considering the total period of time from arrival at the supreme court, the two per curiam opinions were the quickest to receive a decision (an average of only 204 days), which is expected because the Court usually issues per curiam opinions in straightforward cases in which the justices are unanimous.***

Trial courts fared well in transfer opinions; the Court of Appeals did not

The trial court was affirmed in seven of the nine cases in which the supreme court issued opinions. What is more, the importance of deferring to trial courts was emphasized in at least two of the 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.
The only two cases in which the trial court was reversed were appeals by the State. In Coats, the supreme court reversed a trial court’s refusal to commit an incompetent defendant suffering from Alzheimer’s disease to the Division of Mental Health and Addiction (DMHA): “By finding Coats not competent to stand trial but refusing to order commitment, the trial court did not follow the law as it is written.” In Lotaki, the trial court erred by ordering jail credit time for a mandatorily consecutive sentence.

Finally, although the supreme court sometimes reaches the same result as the court of appeals, a grant of transfer was almost always greeted with a different outcome during the past quarter. The two exceptions were Keck, in which the court of appeals had affirmed the trial court’s grant of a motion to suppress, and I.T., where the supreme court disagreed with the court of appeals’ dismissal of the State’s appeal but nevertheless reached the same outcome in favor of the juvenile by “constru[ing] the Juvenile Mental Health Statute’s limited immunity as prohibiting both use and derivative use of a juvenile’s statements to prove delinquency.”
*A separate post will provide similar analysis for civil cases decided during the first quarter.

**The first four 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; 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.

***Although not a criminal case and therefore excluded from this analysis, the justices issued a per curiam opinion last quarter in the Judge Kimberly Brown judicial ethics case. That non-unanimous decision was issued only 32 days after the Commission’s reply brief was filed.

Posted by Marcia Oddi on April 11, 2014 02:45 PM
Posted to Schumm - Commentary