The Waiting Game: How long does it take the Court of Appeals of North Carolina to issue opinions?

I am often called upon to answer questions related to pending appeals because I recently completed a clerkship at the Court of Appeals of North Carolina. When asked how long it will take the Court of Appeals to issue an opinion, I always say it is impossible to know with certainty, but the court has an internal policy of trying to issue opinions within 90 days of the date the appeal is scheduled for argument. After being involved in an appeal as an advocate, I decided to determine how long it takes the court to issue opinions.

First, I calculated the number of days it took the Court of Appeals to issue opinions in 2015 by counting the days from the date the appeal was scheduled for argument (regardless of whether oral argument was granted) until the date the opinion was issued. Not all appeals have an argument date. For example, some opinions are issued after the Supreme Court of North Carolina remands the case or after the Court of Appeals grants a party’s petition for rehearing. If the appeal was not argued, I treated the date that the appeal was remanded or the date the petition for rehearing was granted as the argument date.  

Based on this methodology, I determined that the court issued opinions an average of 77 days after argument in 2015. The median was 62 days.

I found this information unsatisfying because I knew other factors, like whether an opinion is published, must affect how long it takes the court to issue an opinion. So I categorized the opinions as unpublished or published. I then subcategorized the opinions as criminal, civil, juvenile-3.1, or juvenile-criminal based on the area of law assigned to the case in the COA Opinion List. I then calculated the average amount of time it took the court to issue opinions in each subcategory, as demonstrated in the table below.


Average Number of Days to Issue an Opinion
Published
Unpublished
All Opinions
Juvenile-3.1
39
29
31
Juvenile-Criminal
61
99
89
Criminal
91
64
71
Civil
105
96
100
All Areas of Law
93
69
77

Unpublished opinions were issued more quickly than published ones, except in juvenile-criminal cases. This may be explained by the fact that only 11 of the 1,019 opinions issued by the court in 2015 were juvenile-criminal cases, a significantly smaller sample size than any other case category.

I was surprised that juvenile-3.1 cases were issued so quickly. I knew that under Rule 3.1 of the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure, juvenile-3.1 cases are a priority, but I did not realize that they were issued so much faster than other opinions.

While this information was interesting, I knew I could not rely on averages to determine when I could expect the court to issue an opinion. So I calculated the standard deviation for each area of law, except for juvenile-criminal because there were so few opinions. (Standard deviation measures how spread out numbers are in a particular data set.)


Standard Deviation
Published
Unpublished
All Opinions
Juvenile-3.1
28
18
21
Criminal
61
55
58
Civil
63
61
62
All Areas of Law
63
59
61

I had hoped that once I calculated the standard deviation, I would be able to determine the probability of an opinion being issued within an identifiable range of days based on the probabilities associated with a normal distribution, or bell curve. However, the data was not normally distributed, as seen in the charts below.  The horizontal axes display the range of days, while the vertical axes display the number of opinions issued.


 



Because the distribution was skewed, I determined the percentage of opinions issued that actually fell within one standard deviation of the average as demonstrated in the below table.  (In the table, SD stands for standard deviation)


SD
Average
1 SD Range
% Opinions in 1 SD
Juvenile-3.1
Published
28
39
11 - 67
88%
Unpublished
18
29
11 - 47
94%
Criminal
Published
61
91
30 - 152
75%
Unpublished
55
64
9 - 119
83%
Civil
Published
63
105
42 - 168
72%
Unpublished
61
96
35 - 157
70%

The table below provides the number of opinions issued by category of case. The distinction between published and unpublished is removed because when an appeal is scheduled for argument, it is uncertain whether it will result in a published opinion.


SD
Average
1 SD Range
% Opinions in 1 SD
Juvenile-3.1
21
31
10 - 52
92%
Criminal
58
71
13 - 129
81%
Civil
62
100
38 - 162
72%
All Areas of Law
61
77
16 - 138
77%

Now when a client asks me how long it will take the court to issue an opinion in their case I can say: In 2015 the court issued opinions an average of 77 days after the case was scheduled for argument and 77% of opinions were issued between 16 and 138 days after argument.