4th Circuit is fastest despite 4 vacancies

The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which serves the Carolinas and three other states, disposes of cases more quickly than any other circuit in the nation despite its four vacancies. During the 2007-08 court year, it did so by relying on visiting circuit and district judges on 76 percent of the panels that heard oral arguments.

But the vacancies come at another cost – the 4th Circuit also is the least likely court to hear an appeal in person and to issue a detailed opinion, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

“Most people won't get either to make oral arguments (before judges) or to get published opinions,” Tobias said. “They'll get a judgment that is on the briefs… an unpublished opinion – very short, maybe two pages – that basically says we affirm the district court with sometimes no explanation of the reasons.”

The trend is true across the nation, Tobias said, but more so in the 4th Circuit.

In 1994, the court sat for oral arguments on 892 of the 2,887 cases it decided on merit.

In 2007, only 376 cases were argued before the court of the 2,751 decided on merit .

“It is true that the more judges you have to make up panels, the easier it is to get cases argued,” 4th Circuit Court Clerk Patricia Connor said.