How 3 SCOTUS Decisions Altered the Summary Judgment Landscape in California Courts
1986 was an important year for summary judgment motions. The United States Supreme Court had just issued three decisions about the scope of summary judgments in federal courts, all of which sought to clarify the burdens placed on parties and the standards regarding evidence and proof.
Before these three rulings, summary judgment was an underutilized legal tool. Motions for summary judgment allow parties to respond to claims that lack sufficient factual support, and swiftly terminate meritless legal proceedings before trial. But summary judgment motions also do something else. They redefine the relationship between the judge and jury.
There is a concern, then, that courts now rely too heavily on summary judgment, on techniques that enable cases to be disposed of before trial. In fact, shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court issued its ruling in 1986, the number of civil trials at the federal level started to decline.
But how have motions for summary judgment played out in California state courts? The California Supreme Court issued its own trilogy of decisions on summary judgment in 2000 and 2001, rulings that extended the reach of summary judgment to include issues previously reserved for juries.
The data collected by Trellis Research provide insights into how these decisions may have affected the legal landscape throughout California. We can begin with a general overview, mapping the number of motions for summary judgment filed in each county from 2006 to the present. Given the data we have collected, we can quickly see that the number of motions for summary judgment brought to the Superior Court of Los Angeles increased by 1,903 percent from 2008 to 2016.
After normalizing these figures against the number of total court filings stored in our database, we can see that this increase in the number of motions for summary judgment was not just an effect of a general increase in the number of court filings, nor was it an effect of a general increase in our data collection efforts. There actually were more motions for summary judgment in Los Angeles County. The percentage of filings that were motions for summary judgment increased from 0.89 percent in 2008 to 2.19 percent in 2016.
But what about the outcomes of these motions? Has the relationship between judge and jury been redefined? To explore this relationship, let’s take a closer look at Alameda County, a quiet county when it comes to motions for summary judgment.
From 2008 to 2016, the percentage of filings that were motions for summary judgment stayed relatively constant in Alameda County. Not only that, the vast majority of these motions were rejected. The percentage of motions for summary judgment granted declined from 43 percent in 2008 to 32 percent in 2016.
What, then, might be causing these trends? Is there something other than the trilogy of decisions at play? We can, for example, consider the gender dynamics of the bench. Are there any trends in the ways in which male and female judges rule on motions for summary judgment? Might gender changes on the bench be used to explain these patterns?
Maybe. In Alameda County, the percentage of motions for summary judgment granted by male judges steadily decreased over the years.
These are the kinds of questions we can begin to explore by analyzing California state court data aggregated by Trellis Research. There are, of course, many others questions that deserve exploration. To what extent do judges become more strict or more lenient in their rulings on summary judgments over the course of their judicial careers? How do political party affiliations correlate with these rulings?
These are important questions, for they not only say something about the ever-changing relationship between judges and juries. They can also inform the everyday practices of lawyers.