SPRINGFIELD — From high school bleachers to the Brookfield Zoo, from driver’s licenses to juvenile court jurisdiction, the latest decisions from the state’s top court covered a diverse range of topics.
But the Illinois Supreme Court opinions issued last week had at least one thing in common: None of the justices disagreed with them.
Out of the 12 decisions released Thursday, none of them contained dissenting or additional concurring opinions and none of the justices abstained from voting.
In civil cases at least, the latest batch of rulings pushed the high court’s rate of unanimous decisions this year to about 86 percent, according to Kirk C. Jenkins, a partner at Sedgwick LLP and longtime high court watcher.
If that rate stays constant the rest of the year, it would be the highest rate of unanimity in his data set, a compilation dating back to 2000. The rate of unanimous decisions that year was the lowest in that time frame, at 57.9 percent. The highest rate he’s observed happened twice, in 2007 and 2009, when 80.5 percent of the court’s decisions were unanimous.
But Jenkins, who writes about his findings on his blog, Illinois Supreme Court Review, doesn’t expect the unanimity rate to remain that high.
He said one predictor of how the court may ultimately decide a case is how long it’s under advisement. The easier cases tend to be agreed on and decided more quickly, while the trickier ones may take more time and cause more rifts on the bench.
Eleven of the 12 cases Thursday were argued in May, roughly 125 to 135 days before the final opinions were released. But the average lag time for divided decisions has tended to be closer to 200 days.
“[T]hey’ve got eight more cases from the May term pending, and unless they come down in the next week or two, statistically they’re likely to be predominantly split decisions,” Jenkins said in an e-mail. “So I wouldn’t be surprised if the numbers fell back down to a more routine unanimity rate in the low 70s or high 60s by the time we get to the end of the year.
“The fact that all nine (civil cases) were unanimous didn’t surprise me at all,” he added. “Lag time isn’t a perfect predictor, but given how long those cases had been under submission, I would have been floored if less than six or seven in the pile had been unanimous.”
J. Timothy Eaton, a partner at Taft, Stettinius & Hollister LLP and a past president of The Chicago Bar Association, said unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, the questions posed to the Illinois high court don’t often have as much political partisanship baked into them.
“A lot of the law we’re dealing with here — contract law, tort law — I don’t think has the same type of intense philosophical differences as the issues presented in the U.S. Supreme Court, so I think our court tries to be unanimous on the interpretation of both common law and statutory law so practitioners in the state can know what to expect,” Eaton said.
“It gets very difficult when you have a 4-3 decision on a given point of law, because you’re not really certain if it’s been decided or not.”
He added that with complicated splits and special concurrences in opinions, “it’s almost like you have a menu of different options you can choose from.”
A recent example of that “menu effect” was arguably the 2013 decision in People v. Jerry Coram. In that case, the majority opinion said state judges had an implied power to remove gun limitations imposed by federal law on people convicted of misdemeanor crimes.
But a two-justice concurring opinion and a two-justice dissent disagreed with that part of the opinion and led the 4th District Appellate Court in two recent cases — Connour v. Grau and Walton v. Illinois State Police — to veer from the majority decision because a majority of the court held differently on that issue.
Although the most recent batch of decisions ended with unanimous rulings, some of the forthcoming opinions for the court could cover more controversial territory.
Jerry Matthews v. Chicago Transit Authority could have implications for any legal changes aimed at resuscitating the city’s pension system. And in Sharon Price v. Philip Morris, a long-running class-action suit against the Philip Morris tobacco company, billions of dollars are potentially at stake.
The Philip Morris case was before the high court about a decade ago and produced a 4-2 decision. So it wouldn’t necessarily be surprising if the court returns another decision with some differences of opinion.
But Michael A. Scodro, a partner at Jenner & Block and president of the Appellate Lawyers Association, said that type of scenario also gives the court an opportunity to send a strong message.
“I do think there’s value in a court speaking with one voice,” said Scodro, the previous Illinois solicitor general. “And that’s especially so, or at least it carries special force in cases where the lawyers and the public may predict a fractured court.”