According to a statistical report recently issued by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts, federal appeals filings dropped substantially last year. In the 12-month period ending September 30, 2017, 50,506 appeals were filed in federal courts of appeals nationwide, a 16.3% decline from the 60,357 filed in 2016.
The Eleventh Circuit saw an even more precipitous decline in filings during the same time period. 6,098 appeals were filed in the 11th Circuit in the 12-month period ending September 30, 2017, compared to 8,023 in period ending September 30, 2016, a 24% decrease. Of the twelve circuits, only the 4th Circuit (29.9%) had a greater decline in year-over-year appeals filings; the decline in filings in the 1st Circuit nearly matched the drop in the 11th Circuit on a percentage basis.
District Court Adjudications
With limited exceptions, a party can only file an appeal after final judgment has been entered. Did district courts enter fewer final judgments in 2017 than in 2016?
On a national level, they did not. In fact, the opposite occurred. 289,901 civil cases were terminated in U.S. district courts in 2017, compared to 271,649 in 2016, a 6.7% increase. Slightly fewer criminal cases were terminated in 2017– 57,812 in 2017 versus 59,365 in 2016, a 2.6% decrease. But aggregating civil and criminal cases, there were a total of 347,713 district court cases terminated in 2017, compared with 331,014 in 2016.
Within the 11th Circuit, district courts did see a slight decrease in total cases terminated (likely attributable to a reduced number of judges deciding cases, as district judges departed during the period and replacements were not immediately installed) to 37,633 in 2017 from 37,978 in 2016.
Breaking it down further, civil cases terminated in the district courts within the 11th Circuit decreased slightly from 2016 to 2017, from 32,887 cases terminated in 2016 to 32,328 in 2017. Within the three federal districts in Florida, 181 more civil cases were terminated in the Northern District of Florida (a 9.5% increase) in 2017 than in 2016; 350 fewer civil cases were terminated in the Middle District of Florida (perhaps due to 1 additional judgeship becoming vacant) in 2017 than in 2016, a 3.8% decrease; and 486 fewer civil cases were terminated in the Southern District of Florida (where 3 additional judicial vacancies occurred) in 2017 than in 2016. The decline in civil case terminations, however, only accounted for 558 cases, 1.7% fewer than in 2016.
The slight decline in civil case terminations was partially offset by an increase in criminal cases terminated. The number of criminal cases terminated increased by 4.2% (214 cases) across district courts in the 11th Circuit, from 5,091 cases in 2016 to 5,305 cases in 2017. That included a 5.8% increase in criminal case terminations in the Southern District of Florida, from 1,582 cases in 2016 to 1,673 in 2017; a 13.3% increase in the Middle District of Florida, from 1,100 cases in 2016 to 1,246 in 2017; and a 21.4% increase in the Northern District of Florida, from 322 cases in 2016 to 391 in 2017.
What Explains the 2017 Drop Off?
The slight decrease in cases terminated in district courts may have played a role in the number of appeals filed in the 11th Circuit decreasing more sharply than in most other circuits. But it does not explain why the number of appeals filed nationwide decreased in a year when district courts terminated more cases than they had in the previous year.
Answering that question requires looking farther back then 2016. Since 2009, the number of federal appeals filed annually nationwide has generally hovered around 55,000. So the 60,000+ appeals filed in 2016 was an upward deviation from historical trends.
The breakdown of the changes in the categories of cases in which appeals were filed tells most of the story. Nationwide, there was little change from 2016 for most categories of appeals:
- 13,904 civil appeals were filed in 2017, slightly fewer than the 14,286 filed in 2016;
- 9,917 criminal appeals were filed in 2017, versus 9,665 filed in 2016;
- 14,317 prisoner appeals were filed in 2017, about 400 more than were filed in 2016;
- 729 bankruptcy appeals were filed in 2017, about 25 fewer than in 2016; and
- 6,153 administrative appeals were filed in 2017, about 300 fewer than were filed in 2016.
The same was true in the 11th Circuit:
- About 125 fewer civil appeals were filed in 2017 (1,630) than in 2016 (1,503);
- 1,242 criminal appeals were filed in 2017, about 150 fewer than in 2016;
- 66 bankruptcy appeals were filed in 2017, 14 fewer than in 2016;
- 254 agency appeals were filed in 2017, 50 fewer than in 2016; and
- 1,968 prisoner appeals were filed, about 80 more than were filed in 2016.
There was one major exception, however: the “Original Proceedings and Miscellaneous Applications” category. 5,486 of those types of cases were filed nationwide in 2017, more than 8,000 fewer than the 13,758 filed in 2016. The decreased number of such cases filed in 2017 from 2016 accounts for about 85% of the overall decline in appeals filed nationwide. In the 11th Circuit, the decrease from 2016 to 2017 in “Original Proceedings and Miscellaneous Applications” of more than 1,900 was almost identical to the decrease in appeals filed overall.
And the number filed in 2016 was an anomaly. 4,786 “Original Proceedings and Miscellaneous Applications” were filed nationwide in 2015, 5,706 were filed in 2014, and 5,107 were filed in 2013. The apparent cause of the 2016 surge in original proceedings was an uptick in filings by