The 1998 Tennessee Supreme Court decision in the case of Alcazar v. Hayes has been used to guide other decisions by out-of-state courts. It involved the question of whether failure to notify an insurance company of an accident within a specified time period should allow the company to deny payment. While the legal trend always had held that insurance contracts are absolute, the court’s decision essentially changed the law by ruling that lack of notice of an accident does not necessarily give an insurance company an out.
If the process of writing major court decisions was a popularity contest, the Tennessee Supreme Court might have a difficult time being picked for the team.
A recent national study compares the influence of state high courts based on how often their decisions are “followed” by other jurisdictions — in other words, how often decisions are used for direct guidance or influence for rulings in other jurisdictions.
The Tennessee Supreme Court ranks fifth from the bottom, while Kentucky’s highest judicial body comes in last. California’s Supreme Court — where the idea to crunch the numbers and come up with the rankings originated — takes first place.
Jake Dear, who is the chief supervising attorney of the California Supreme Court, said the study began as “a purely academic pursuit” to see if that court continues to enjoy the kind of influence it did in the 1960s and ’70s when certain landmark cases in the state seemed to affect the rest of the country.
For instance, the 1976 California case that established the duty of mental health professionals to disclose serious dangers posed by patients has been relied upon 17 times by other jurisdictions facing the same legal issues, according to the study.
The Tennessee Supreme Court justices interviewed for this article never had heard of the study, which Mr. Dear and his colleague, Edward W. Jessen, published last December in the University of California-Davis Law Review.
But the raw data they analyzed provides some interesting comparisons, Mr. Dear said.
He and Mr. Jessen looked at all 24,400 state high court decisions that had been followed at least once by out-of-state courts from the years 1940 to 2005.
California was the front-runner with 1,260 cases followed over the period. Washington state came in second with 942 followed cases. By contrast, Tennessee had 296 followed cases in the same time period, and Kentucky had 177.
Since it is rare for cases to be followed more than once, the study’s authors also looked at the cases that had been followed at least three times by out-of-state courts.
Here, too, California beat every other state with 160 cases followed at least three times, but Washington state came in a distant second with 72. Tennessee ranked slightly better at 11th from the bottom with 14 cases followed at least three times, and Kentucky again came in last with eight.
“I don’t disagree with their figures,” Tennessee Supreme Court Chief Justice William M. Barker said. “But it’s sort of comparing apples to oranges. California has a diverse population with all sorts of issues that arise there that don’t in Tennessee.”
It’s true, Mr. Dear said, that the larger and more diverse a state’s population, the more chances there are for rich legal questions to crop up.
But does it all necessarily mean that California’s Supreme Court is the most influential in the land, while Tennessee’s is among the least?
The frequency with which cases are followed is an indication of the novel legal issues being argued, how other jurisdictions may view the particular court and the “the quality of the work coming out of that court,” Mr. Dear said.
So other than being useful for playing a “parlor game” to see who’s on top, the numbers should be seen as objectively measuring the innovation — an aspect of influence — going on within the country’s judicial system, he said.
With 737 cases followed in the last 66 years, one of the least-populous states in the nation, Kansas, ranks four places higher (sixth place) in the study than New York (10th place).
“Jurisdictions who come in on a low ranking might kind of sit back and look at their work product and say, ‘Are we doing something wrong? Why are courts paying so much attention to Kansas decisions?’” Mr. Dear said.
Penny White, a former justice and law professor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, had a different take on the study.
“The entire study attempts to set aside the stereotype that the law coming out of that part of the country (California) is not mainstream,” Ms. White said.
On the other hand, Ms. White said she’s not surprised — or concerned — that Tennessee’s Supreme Court decisions do not attract the same kind of attention as those in states with reputations as breeding grounds for controversial issues that often wind up being litigated — for example, gay marriage, which the California Supreme Court recently made legal.
When and if the issue is challenged in other states, California’s decision is likely to be used as a guide precisely because it already has become a high-profile example for the country, she said.
“I mean, gay marriage certainly didn’t come here first,” Ms. White said. “Part of it is the conservative nature of our state. It’s not in our culture to attract the kinds of legal issues that arise in California and New York.”
State Supreme Court Justice Gary Wade agreed, saying issues being litigated in Tennessee certainly don’t match those in other states such as California.
The best all high courts can do, he said, is “pay attention to mainstream legal precedent” but ultimately write the best decisions for the individual circumstances.