Litigants face long road to Indiana Supreme Court

2013-11-10T22:45:00Z 2013-11-17T20:52:44Z Litigants face long road to Indiana Supreme CourtDan Carden, (317) 637-9078
November 10, 2013 10:45 pm  • 

INDIANAPOLIS | It's not easy for a legal case to make it to the Indiana Supreme Court.

The high court's five justices stand at the top of a statewide court system that last year saw 1.6 million new cases filed -- roughly one for every four Hoosiers -- including 179,596 cases in Lake County and 37,783 in Porter County.

Of those, only 868 eventually were appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear most of them. The court issued just 78 rulings between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, excluding attorney discipline orders.

Data released last week show the court's workload last year was down compared to prior years.

During the 2011-12 term, the Supreme Court issued 90 opinions from 963 appeals. Ten years ago, the high court received 979 appeals and issued 122 rulings.

Chief Justice Brent Dickson, a Hobart native, had no specific explanation for why the court is receiving fewer appeals, and, as a result, announcing fewer rulings.

"I don't know that there's any particular reason other than to say more people are satisfied with their trial court decisions," Dickson said.

The Indiana Constitution guarantees litigants the right to one appeal. Except in death penalty and certain tax cases, that appeal is heard by the 15-member Indiana Court of Appeals, which issues rulings by three-judge panels.

The Court of Appeals last year decided 2,155 cases. That means about one out of every two-and-a-half Court of Appeals decisions was further appealed to the Supreme Court.

Dickson, who has served on the state's top court since 1986 and became chief justice in 2012, said numerous factors go into the Supreme Court's decision to "grant transfer," or hear an appeal of a Court of Appeals ruling.

"It depends on the case," Dickson said. "The court of last resort ... has a particular responsibility to make sure the precedent for the state is headed in the right direction."

He explained when the justices are reviewing cases to hear, they distinguish between "law making" and "error correction" cases. 

"If the case involves making law, or making sure that the principles of law that are in a published opinion are correct or incorrect, they're more inclined to take the case," Dickson said.

He said error correction cases are heard less frequently, because often a lower court has more or less satisfactorily resolved a situation that is unlikely to come up again.

"If ... the Court of Appeals reaches a decision in which they make a call, the Supreme Court may well say, 'They may or may not have gotten that right, but we don't want to take resources away from our other responsibilities and address that," he said.

It takes agreement by at least three of the five justices to grant transfer of a Court of Appeals ruling.

Dickson said a decision to not grant transfer also sends a message to appellate judges. Such as, "This case doesn't make the grade but we'd like to see it again," or, "We're not altogether sure it's right, but we're going to let it go this time," he said.

Last year, civil cases were more likely to obtain a final decision by the high court. Of the 297 civil petitions for transfer, the Supreme Court issued rulings in 39 cases (13 percent). Just 34 criminal rulings were issued out of 529 appeals (6 percent).

Most Supreme Court rulings (72 percent) were unanimous, with 13 percent decided by a 4-1 majority and only 12 percent by a 3-2 majority.

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