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  • Writer's pictureGail Johnston

A Look At The California Court System: The Numbers

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

Case Filings; Trials; Percentage of Upholding a Trial Victory in the Court of Appeal; Percentage of Success in Overturning a Bad Result From the Trial Court in the Court of Appeal; Relief in the California Supreme Court


The population of the State of California as of July 2022 was estimated to be $39,029,342 by the United States Census Bureau. California’s Gross Domestic Product in 2022 was $3.6 Trillion. It represents 14% of the total United States economy. If California were a separate country, it would be the 5th largest economy in the world. This economic activity generates some risk which if not resolved without reliance on the Court system results in just a bit of litigation. So, how many cases are filed yearly in the California Court System?


The California Superior Courts are the trial courts, or otherwise known as the courts of general jurisdiction, where civil cases are initially filed and disposed of, subject to appeal. “New law” is not generally pronounced in the civil trial courts, but decisions are reached by judges and juries that affect the litigants and may give rise to appeals.


Between 2012 and 2021 new civil filings declined from a high of 9 million to a low of 3 million in 2021. However, new civil complaints for tort (negligence cases) and other damages remained essentially steady at about 150,000 per year. Therefore, if a claim is not settled before resort to the California judicial system, the litigant you are working with will be 1 of 150,000 to file a civil negligence action in California for resolution at trial on average.


TRIALS


If alternative dispute resolution is not successful in resolving your case (usually resolution by way of settlement conference or mediation), how many cases actually proceeded to trial?


COVID definitely impacted the ability of litigants to resolve their cases by way of jury or court trials. The full effect of COVID seems to have peaked in FY 2021, but is still being felt in FY 2022 and beyond. In FY 2018, the last full pre-COVID year, there were 1055 unlimited civil jury trials concluded in the California statewide court system, and 6357 criminal jury trials (felony and misdemeanor). In contrast, the lowest numbers in the last five years were in FY 2021, with only 152 unlimited civil jury trials.


In some counties, this dramatic decline in the number of cases getting tried by either the court or jury has left a lasting and significant backload of criminal cases. That backload impacts the number of civil cases being tried, because criminal cases take priority over civil cases in getting assigned out to courtrooms.


Jury trials are slowly climbing in number, with FY 2022 seeing 300 unlimited civil jury trials statewide and 2711 combined criminal jury trials. However, there appears to be a long way to go before the backlog of existing and new civil cases move through to disposition, particularly jury trials, in the wake of COVID. During this same period, FY 2018 saw 36,791 civil court trials, but there were only 18,844 civil court trials in FY 2022.


APPEALS


“We will appeal…”


How many times have we heard “we will appeal” from a litigant or from counsel dissatisfied with their result at trial. How many cases were filed in the Court of Appeal on average during recent years and what is the success rate for a dissatisfied litigant in the trial court?


Unlike the California Supreme Court, which has the discretion to grant or deny review of any civil case, the Court of Appeal has original jurisdiction over all civil appeals and does not have discretion to deny review of a case. There are a total of 106 appellate justices across the six districts in California. In 2021, all courts of appeal issued a total of 8306 written opinions. As of 2021, there are 12,401 cases pending in the Court of Appeal.


Of those cases in which written opinions were issued, 79% of the cases were affirmed on appeal – meaning that whatever the result was at trial, the verdict was not disturbed. The Court of Appeal reversed only 17% of the cases disposed of in 2021 by the Court of Appeal.


The time to process appeals from filing to decision runs between 418 to 920 days depending on the district, and the size of the district does not seem to be a determining factor.


These intermediate appellate court statistics have been relatively consistent year over year, demonstrating that the odds of overturning a trial court decision, in particular a jury verdict, are quite low and the time until an appeal is resolved can be quite lengthy.


THE CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT


According to the California Judicial Council’s 2023 report, in 2022, 5665 cases were filed before the California Supreme Court (which is down by close to 1000 filings from 2021). Of these filings, only 49 written opinions (ten less than in 2021) were issued. Nineteen published appellate decisions were depublished in 2022 (nine less than in 2021), meaning those decisions are no longer citable as precedent.


All filings in the California Supreme Court are down by approximately 1/3rd over the past ten years, with civil filings down by 8%. The Supreme Court granted review in only 5% of the civil cases filed in 2020-21. It is no wonder that certain areas of the law develop rather slowly.


The California Supreme Court’s Docket Has a Paucity of Insurance Cases and Zero Legal Malpractice Cases Pending Resolution after a Grant of Review


Currently, the California Supreme Court has 96 cases on its docket for 2023. There are 57 civil cases and 39 criminal cases. In 2022 and 2023, the California Supreme Court has not granted review of any case involving legal malpractice. Only two of the pending civil cases involve insurance coverage disputes – and both involve potential first party property coverage for business interruption and restoration costs for businesses impacted by COVID-19 and the issue of whether the virus constitutes a direct physical loss of covered property. The intermediate appellate and federal decisions in this area have generally held that contamination with aerosolized SARS virus particles does not cause property damage, therefore the standard form CGL policy affords no coverage for restoration or business interruption caused by COVID. The California Supreme Court has yet to release an opinion on this issue, but will likely do so later this year.


The Supreme Court granted review (S 278481) of an interesting decision on this issue in a case involving John’s Grill (2022) 86 Cal. App. 5th 1195. If a written opinion is issued it may expand the very narrow body of California insurance law on the issue of when a policy exclusion for COVID claims that do not arise from direct physical injury to property renders the coverage under a policy wholly illusory. The issue of whether the COVID virus is a direct physical loss triggering coverage is also on review in a case involving Another Planet Entertainment (2022) 31 F4th 1268, on direct referral from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals requesting a ruling on this issue of first impression from the California Supreme Court. Neither of these cases have been fully briefed and oral argument has not been scheduled.


Although there are a wide variety of civil cases pending before the California Supreme Court, several of the pending cases involve Private Attorney General Litigation arising out of employment claims and the enforcement of arbitration agreements. Each of these areas have produced a number of decisions in the past several years, and the trend appears to be continuing as efforts are made by employers to limit their PAGA exposure and to uphold arbitration provisions in employment agreements.


These statistics are published annually by the California Judicial Council, the administrative arm of the California court system. In closing, they seem to reveal a court system working hard to recover from the COVID backlogs, primarily in criminal cases. Even as seasoned litigators, it was surprising to us to see the relatively small number of jury trials in court cases and the huge number of court trials in all types of civil matters.

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