How long will an appeal take?

Looking for a better answer than “It depends”?

The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts produces for every fiscal year (Oct. 1 to Sept. 30) a report of the “Judicial Business of the United States Courts.” Included in that report is information about the median time it takes to go through the various stages of an appeal, including the time it takes to go from filing a notice of appeal to a final decision. (See, for example, Judicial Business 2011, at Tables B-4, B-4A to B-4D).

My office is in Pittsburgh, which is in the Third Circuit. For cases the Third Circuit decided on the merits in fiscal year 2011 (October 2010 to September 2011), the median number of months between the filing of the notice of appeal and final disposition was 9.7 (Table B-4). For fiscal year 2012, the comparable number is 7.7 (See Judicial Business 2012, at Table B-4). What do those numbers mean?

Well, generally they mean that 50% of 2,484 cases decided on the merits in 2011 were decided by the time 9.7 months had passed. Same for 2012: 50% of 2,493 cases decided on the merits were decided in 7.7 months. What about the other 50%? Those cases took longer than 9.7 months in 2011 and longer than 7.7 months in 2012. How much longer? The tables provide no clue.

So, what can you say about how long an appeal will take in the Third Circuit? All you can say is that half the cases that court decided in the last fiscal year were decided in 7.7 months.

Does that mean your appeal has a fair chance of being decided in 7.7 months? No.

Whether your appeal takes less than 7.7 months or substantially longer than 7.7 months depends in part on whether it is more like the “lower” half of 2,493 cases decided on the merits in FY 2012 or more like the “upper” half of those cases. Rather than look just at the overall numbers, dig a bit deeper and look at Tables B-4A through B-4D. Those tables won’t give you exactly what you’re looking for either, but they’ll provide better information than Table B-4 will.

In Table B-4A, for example, you’ll see that the median number of months it took to decide 596 criminal appeals in FY 2012 was 11.7 – i.e., 4 months longer than the overall median. The Third Circuit decided half of the 616 “other civil cases” (civil cases other than a prisoner petitions) in 10.5 months. The median for bankruptcy appeals was 10.4 months (Table B-4B). On the other hand, the median for prisoner petition cases (of which there were 627 in FY 2012, making it one of the largest subcategories of cases) was 4.1 months (Table B-4A) and the median for original proceedings was 1.3 months (Table B-4D).

The 7.7 month “overall” median reflects all of these cases (and administrative proceedings as well – see Table B-4C). So, is your appeal more like a prisoner petition case or more like a criminal case, a standard civil case, or a bankruptcy appeal? The answer to that question will help you decide if any of the reported statistics are useful to you and which may be most useful.

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