January 2014 Updates - Unpacking Arizona Supreme Court Discretionary Review

Arizona Supreme Court Seal.jpg

The Arizona Supreme Court has granted the petition to review the City of Phoenix v. Garretson decision of the Arizona Court of Appeals, Division One. Southern Arizona Public Works discussed the appellate decision here. The supreme court will hear oral argument in the case on January 22, 2014.

What does the supreme court's decision mean? In Arizona, civil litigants generally do not have an absolute right to supreme court review. The Supreme Court of Arizona may exercise its discretion to grant a petition for review, but does so infrequently in civil cases. In the court's 2012 fiscal year (July 1, 2012, through July 1, 2013), it received 313 civil petitions for review and granted only 12 petitions, or 3.8%.

The conclusion most lawyers draw from the discretionary nature of supreme court review and the court's limited exercise of it is the court grants petitions for review primarily when it wishes to correct an error at the appellate level, which would bode unwell for the Garretson decision and those who support the decision's reasoning and outcome. However, most lawyers would admit the supreme court sometimes grants review if it wishes to clarify the law by affirming the reasoning of the appellate court and elevating that reasoning into a supreme court opinion. 

How likely is it that the Arizona Supreme Court granted review in Garretson simply to affirm the court of appeals?

The answer is: unlikely, but more likely than you might think, depending on how you interpret the data. In the last 16 years, the Arizona Supreme Court has granted 247 petitions to review civil cases and has affirmed the appellate court only 36 times, or 14.5% of the time. Here is a breakdown:

Arizona Supreme Court Petition for Review Affirmances 1998-2013

Arizona Supreme Court Petition for Review Affirmances 1998-2013

However, during the four full years of Rebecca White Berch's term as Chief Justice, the court affirmed 30-40% of the civil cases the court elected to review. This graph demonstrates the trend:

Arizona Supreme Court Petition for Review Results 1998-2013

The trend line demonstrates a change in attitude over time from the Zlaket court to the Berch court. The reasons for this trend are best left to (probably pointless -- but amusing) speculation, but there is a clear, data-based suggestion the current court looks more favorably upon elevating appellate decisions to become the law of the land. Further, the chances of affirmance in Garretson may be more likely than this analysis shows because this data does not account for partial affirmances. A case partially vacated with regards to, say an award of attorneys' fees, was not coded as "affirmed," even though the court may have affirmed the salient portion of the appellate court's analysis.

It is correct to say the supreme court's decision to grant the petition for review in Garretson is a victory for the petitioner. It would be incorrect to assume, however, the outcome in the supreme court is assured. Good luck to the lawyers arguing the case on January 22nd - Mr. Ayers for the City of Phoenix and Mr. Zeitlin for Garretson. But a little more luck to Mr. Zeitlin.