Is the 9th circuit really the most overturned court of appeals by the US Supreme Court?

This project was done for the KDnuggets Data Science vs. Fake News contest.

In February of 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that blocked immigration and travel from seven countries in Africa and the Middle East. This executive order was met with a lot of resistance. Several states sued the Trump administration, and a federal trial court judge ruled that the government could not carry out the executive order while the trial was pending. The Trump administration appealed this court decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the initial decision. On February 9, 2017, conservative news commentator Sean Hannity stated that he has been “predicting for days now the 9th circuit, the most liberal court of appeals, the most overturned court in the country — it would act this way.”

Debate ensued in the news media over whether the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was the most overturned by the Supreme Court. The 9th Circuit encompasses a larger area than each of the other eleven courts of appeals, resulting in a larger overall caseload. Cases in the 9th Circuit make up about one fifth (20%) of all court of appeals cases nationwide.

This larger caseload results in the Supreme Court taking more cases from the 9th circuit, and, in turn, the Supreme Court reverses more decisions from the 9th Circuit. While the 9th Circuit has the most reversal decisions by the Supreme Court of the US from 2000 to 2015, the 6th and 8th circuit courts have higher rates of reversals.

Is the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals really the most liberal court of appeals, as Sean Hannity claimed? From 2000 to 2008, during George W. Bush’s term in office, the Supreme Court consisted of 7 conservative justices and 2 liberal justices. During Barack Obama’s term in office, two conservative justices were replaced with two liberal justices, leaving a more even split. It follows that the more conservative Bush-era Supreme Court would reverse more decisions from a liberal court of appeals than would the more evenly split Obama-era supreme court. Supreme Court reversal rates of circuit court cases do vary considerably by presidential term. The reversal rate of the 9th Circuit decreased about 6% from Bush’s presidential term to Obama’s presidential term. However, other circuit courts saw much more variability in their reversal rates between the two terms. For example, the 10th Circuit saw a drop of over 40% in their reversal rate, and the 11th Circuit saw an increase of about 23%. Relative to other courts of appeals, the Supreme Court’s reversal rate of the 9th Circuit is relatively stable.

From this data, it certainly does not appear that the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is at odds with the Supreme Court. While the Supreme Court does reverse more cases from the 9th circuit than any other circuit, the rate at which they do so is on par with other circuit courts. Additionally, the reversal rate of the 9th Circuit has not varied significantly as the ideological makeup of the Supreme Court has changed, suggesting that it is not strongly liberal.

Data Sources

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