Why are so many Supreme Court cases 9-0?

I think this is a fair GQ question. Faktshual as possible, plz.
About 45% of Supreme Court cases in the US are either 9-0 or 8-0. Around 60% of cases are either unanimous or with at most two dissenters. Of course, it’s actually a bimodal distribution: after the most common result being unanimous, the second-most-common result is a 5-4 split. But it’s easy to understand why the Supremes would split. There is strong reason to take a case if there are strong disagreements about what the result should be.

But why so many unanimous results, or nearly unanimous results?

If the law is fairly clear for so many cases at the SCOTUS level, then why wasn’t the case similarly clear at lower levels? Why aren’t the majority of clear cases weeded out at lower levels? How exactly does it happen that a majority of cases decided by the court have such a strong consensus? My best guess right now is: there are clear cases of law that most every legal scholar agrees on, but the legal system still benefits from those clear cases occasionally being reinforced with a strong signal at the highest level, to give an imprimatur to the decision that clarifies and standardizes good law across all jurisdictions. There might also be accidental inconsistencies across circuits that deserve a good ironing out every once in a while. Maybe.

My next best guess is that there are simply a large number of fuck-ups at lower levels, and the circuit courts simply don’t catch all of them. The Supremes are a last, and very necessarily, filter for those fuck-ups. I don’t have any other hypothesis right now. Curious about the truth.

So what’s up with Supreme Court unanimity?

vast majority are weeded out at lower levels. The SC takes very few cases per year , about 80. They get around 7000 requests to hear a case per year. when they turn down a case they don’t give a reason for turning it down which means the lower court ruling stands.

9-0s are typically non-contentious issues for which there is little or no prior precedent. In those cases, there is no political bend or need to shape society and it really becomes just a matter of deciding what the law is. The justices contrary to popular belief are all highly educated people who are well-versed in the law and most have been doing this for quite some time. It also helps that literally every single one of them went to either Harvard or Yale law, so they were even educated in the exact same manner. It’s not necessarily surprising that in non-political issues they agree on things. They also like to give the appearance of collegiality. We don’t really know what’s going on in discussions, but if it’s a random patent case of whether a particular type of cable infringes on a patent from some other company from 10 years ago and 8 of the justices think it does, do you really want to waste your time writing a dissent over some non-ideological issue that is likely rarely ever going to be cited again, or is it just easier to join with the other justices. I think there’s a great deal of conjecture that it’s the latter option most of the time.

You have to remember that they are just people like anyone else. If a case about whether Bob’s Donuts infringed on copyright when it made a donut called the Bunny Butt that looks exactly like Robert’s Donuts Rabbit Rear pastry and 8 of your colleagues says it did, do you really want to be the one to go to the mat on it? Most of the time I think they just say, “Nah, not worth my trouble.”

Dissenting and concurring opinions aren’t in any way binding, but they’re still important parts of case law. A justice won’t go through the trouble of writing one without a compelling reason to add to it.

Two big reasons:

  1. The Supreme Court values consensus. They are sensitive about their reputation and their legitimacy. Americans are losing faith in the Supreme Court because we know the nominations are designed to install partisan shills rather than prudent jurists. The Justices know this. Therefore, they put extra effort into trying to reach a consensus as a way of preserving the appearance of non-partisanship. Every time there is a 4-5 split vote, it chips away at the public’s confidence in their integrity. Which brings me to point 2…

  2. Most votes are unanimous because most votes SHOULD BE unanimous. The entire point of having laws in the first place is to make things unambiguous and consistent. If nine of the most educated and experienced people examine the same problem, one would expect that they would arrive at the same conclusion. The votes that are 4-5 splits are usually the contentious social issues for which the law and the Constitution is unclear, and for which there is little existing case precedent. Because the matter is ambiguous, the Justices resort to their own ideas about morality and their political ideologies.

Think about it this way: If every single vote was a 4-5 ideological split, that would be a sign that the laws and the Constitution were badly written in the first place. If the law is well-crafted and unambiguous, then there just isn’t much left to disagree about.

I think at least some of the responders are missing the part of the OP’s question that asks: If the laws in question were so unambiguous and consistent, why did the cases get to the Supreme Court in the first place?

Most of the cases, the problem is not that they are so complicated but that there is no precedence for the appeals courts to use. If the law is new or the facts are new then the case may be appealed to the supreme court.

Another driving factor behind unanimous or almost unanimous decisions is that when the Court is faced with a contentious case and having trouble getting a majority behind one position, they will often rule narrowly on more technical grounds or send the case back down to the lower courts to reconsider some aspect of the case. Essentially, both sides agree that the main issue is not yet ripe for a final determination so buy themselves some time.

Yeah, the Supreme Court is essentially the ultimate appellate court at the Federal level. Pretty much every case they see has been decided at a district court level, then appealed to the appellate court of that circuit.

From there, it can be appealed to the Supreme Court.

The big difference is that the Supreme Court doesn’t have to actually take the case- they have the discretion to say that the appellate ruling stands, and not actually take the case.

So usually when they choose to take cases, they’re cases of national import where there’s very little precedent to fall back on.

As to why they’re so often unanimous decisions, **JB99 **has it- they value consensus and seek to mitigate ideological/political divisions and try and make it strictly legal.

Are there any stats that of the 9-0 rulings, how many affirm the lower courts ruling and how many reverse?

The problem here is that while most decisions of law are unanimous, the Supreme Court doesn’t consider most decisions. The set of cases the Supreme Court considers is only a tiny tiny subset. And it’s explicitly a subset where there’s an open question or a split decision in a lower court.

So while it’s absolutely true that most cases would have a unanimous decision, I don’t know that you can argue that the conditional probability of a case having a unanimous decision given that the court grants cert is as high.

I think your first point explains it better. If at all possible, the justices will find a narrow enough way to decide cases that they can all agree, and defer any potential causes of disagreement into the future. It’s only when there’s really no way to decide things on narrow grounds that you get a split decision.

It would be extremely rare for the Supreme Court of the United States to vote 9-0 to affirm a decision of one of the Circuit Courts of Appeals. To hear the case at all (most likely as a response to a Petition for Writ of Certiorari), four justices have to vote to grant the petition. Why would they vote to grant a petition for review when they are in agreement with the result below?

It does happen, of course, from time to time. Maybe something changed and the original objection was answered (though that would usually mean simply dismissing the writ). Maybe the result was right, but the reasoning used below was wrong. Maybe the result below was right, but there was a budding split in the circuit courts that needed to be stamped out, and the decision the writ was granted on was more readily accessible for establishing the law. Etc.

As for the OP: 9-0 happens a fair amount of the time because, out of the thousands and thousands of decisions issued by the Circuit Courts of Appeal, and by the various state supreme courts addressing federal issues, it’s not too shocking that some end up getting the result wrong. Those get corrected.

Well, because of circuit splits. For example, last week the Court decided Mount Lemmon Fire Dist. v. Guido in an 8-0 decision. It affirmed the decision of the Ninth Circuit and, in doing so, rejected the contrary decisions of the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth, and Tenth. (Edit: I see you mention circuit splits.)

Then again, that decision illustrates the OP’s question (which I don’t know the answer to). I have no opinion on the scope of the ADEA and I’m not going to read all the circuit court opinions. But how was something that was so clear that it could be decided 8-0 in a six page opinion also something that four different circuit court panels got “wrong.”