Iowa Supreme Court 2021-22 Term Statistical Review
October 27, 2022
By: Matthew A. McGuire, Spencer S. Cady
[This article was originally published in the August 2022 issue of The Iowa Lawyer magazine.]
The 2021-2022 term of the Iowa Supreme Court concluded on June 30. A statistical analysis reveals that the recent trend of reduced polarization among the current justices in non-unanimous cases continues, with the justices deciding fewer closely divided 4-3 cases. The data also shows continued independence among the individual justices, with the justices agreeing or disagreeing with one another in a much less predictable fashion from case to case—a contrast from the durable 3-3-1 alignment of the previous Cady Court.
But reduced polarization in alignment among the justices in close cases has not heralded an era of consensus. In fact, the opposite is true. In deciding 105 cases this term, the justices issued 72 separate opinions concurring with or dissenting from the majority opinion—and often both at once. This is a marked increase in disagreement compared with prior terms. So, while the number of closely divided cases has dropped, it appears there remain many topics about which the justices disagree.
Opinions by the numbers
The Iowa Supreme Court decided 105 cases by opinion last term, which is consistent with historical opinion totals, but a decline from last year’s 119 cases decided by opinion. Sixty-six of these opinions were unanimous, while 39 were non-unanimous. As noted above, in those 39 non-unanimous cases, individual justices authored 72 separate opinions concurring with or dissenting from the majority opinion. This is a notable increase of approximately 25% compared with prior terms. Between the 2017-2018 term and the 2020-2021 term, the justices collectively issued on average only 58 separate opinions.
By contrast, the number of closely divided opinions—cases decided on a 4-3 or 4-2 basis—has steadily declined. This year’s 15 closely divided opinions represented a modest increase over last year’s 11, but the court averaged 20 closely divided opinions between the 2017-2018 term and the 2019-2020 term. In other words, while the justices were less likely to disagree with one another this term compared to previous terms, if they did disagree, they were more likely to write about why.