Snail's Pace: An Analysis of the Texas Supreme Court's Growing Backlog

by Texas Watch Foundation

March 5, 2008

Full report available at Texas Watch, a nonpartisan consumer advocacy organization

When individuals, business owners and families turn to the courts to help resolve disputes and mete out justice, they rightfully expect an expeditious, efficient resolution. Sadly, that is hard to come by at the Texas Supreme Court. Indeed, the state’s highest court operates at a snail’s pace, leaving individuals and business owners in limbo while the Court’s backlog expands.

We have examined court records for the past three terms and discovered that the Court’s backlog is a direct result of the failure of both individual justices to do their job expeditiously and the chief justice to ensure the efficient operation of the Court.

The Court has amassed a record backlog of cases; in fact, research shows that the backlog of cases left pending each year has increased by more than 300 percent over the course of this decade. Our research shows that members of the Court are failing to keep up with the demands of their docket.

Over the last three terms, the average number of cases produced by each justice has decreased by 25 percent while the average length of time to write opinions has increased by 31 percent. In fact, it is not uncommon for justices to write fewer than four signed opinions in a given year, and it is also not uncommon for justices to average more than 18 months to write an opinion. So, the Court as a whole is doing less while taking more time to do it.

We discovered startling trends demonstrating that justice truly is delayed at the Texas Supreme Court.

  • The Court took an average of 852 days (2.3 years) to dispose of a case in the 2006–07 term, an increase of 24 percent from the 2004–05 term.
  • Justices took an average of 416 days to write an opinion after the Court heard oral arguments, a 31 percent increase from 04–05 to 06–07.
  • The Court’s backlog has steadily increased from 14 in fiscal year 2000 to 60 in fiscal year 2007, an increase of 328 percent.
  • The Court has left 72 cases pending for more than a year. An additional 31 cases have been pending for more than two years.

Cases in which a consumer has won at the lower appellate level comprise the majority of cases the Court accepts for review. By keeping these cases on hold for inordinate amounts of time, the Court makes it more likely that injured patients will go without recompense for lost wages and medical expenses, individuals will be forced to declare bankruptcy, and matters involving children are delayed. But the costs exist not simply on the individual level; there are costs to the public’s faith in the Court.

Taxpayers have a right to know that their resources are used efficiently, and individuals and businesses with matters pending before the Court have a right to expect a timely resolution to their case. With an ever-increasing backlog, cases left sitting on the Court’s desk for a year or more and justices failing to keep pace with the demands of their job, the Texas Supreme Court is clearly falling short of fulfilling its obligation to Texas taxpayers and litigants.