Richmond attorney Cullen Seltzer rises to the defense of U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in Slate:
As proof of the 9th's judicial failings, the critics generally stress the court's extra-high rate of review and reversal by the Supreme Court. The numbers, though, tell a less damning story than the alarmist portrayals of the court. . . .
yes, 9th Circuit cases were disproportionately represented in the Supreme Court. Since caseload and population would predict a review rate of 18 percent to 20 percent, the justices heard between one and a half times and twice as many cases from the 9th as would have been expected. But because the Supreme Court's docket is small, the number of "extra" cases from the 9th is also small: nine for the last term. That's a substantial part of the Supreme Court's docket, which totaled 73 cases last year, 64 of them from the federal courts of appeals. But nine cases represents only 0.1 percent of the 9th Circuit's 6,387 on-the-merits decisions for the 12 months ending in September of 2006. That's a fair measure of judges going nutty only if you think that 0.1 percent is statistically interesting. . . .
let's look at how often the Supreme Court decides that the 9th got it wrong. Last term, the Supreme Court's reversal rate for 9th Circuit cases was 90.5 percent. Yikes—that's huge! But wait, for on-the-merits cases, the Supremes reversed the 3rd and 5th Circuits all of the time last term. Cases from state appellate courts fared no better: They also had a 100 percent reversal rate. Overall, this past term the Supreme Court reversed 75.3 percent of the cases they considered on their merits. The pattern holds true for the 2004 and 2005 terms as well, when the Supremes had overall reversal rates of 76.8 percent and 75.6 percent, respectively. For those years, the 9th was reversed 84 percent and 88.9 percent of the time, or about a case or two more each year than it would have been if it had conformed to the reversal rate of the other circuits. How do one or two cases a year add up to a court run amuck?
It's also not necessarily the case that a higher reversal rate by the Supreme Court means that an appeals court is doing a bad job. The lower court judges may be bad at predicting what the Supreme Court will approve or disapprove. Or they may not care: They may want to test an idea or take a stance that's at odds with the current direction of the Supreme Court. Or they may perceive that existing law, as previously dictated by their own circuit or by earlier Supreme Court decisions, requires a certain outcome, even as they understand the justice may change that law if they take the case for review.