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A new study ranking the influence of the nation’s state supreme courts found some previously highly ranked courts, such as those of New York, have been eclipsed by those of some surprising states, such as Washington, Arizona and New Jersey. Plenty of speculation abounds among lawyers about whether the once pre-eminent state courts in the nation, such as those of California and New York, still hold sway. The new research found that while California retains bragging rights, New York has slipped to No. 11 among the 50 states. The research uses a new technique of ranking states by opinions that have been most frequently “followed” by other states, using all opinions issued during the past 65 years. In past studies, some more than 30 years old, academics simply compiled all the cases “cited” by other courts, without distinguishing which were followed or rejected by other state courts. “The conventional wisdom has been that the glory days [of California's high court] were in the past,” said Jerry Uelmen, a Santa Clara University School of Law professor who writes an annual analysis of the California court’s decisions. “The cases cited most frequently are addressing questions and issues of first impression. When other courts confront those issues they are looking for help,” Uelmen said. Big surprise The results were reported in the University of California, Davis Law Review in “ ‘Followed Rates’ and Leading State Cases, 1940-2005” by Jake Dear and Edward W. Jessen. Dear, the chief supervising attorney for the California Supreme Court, and Jessen, the court’s reporter of decisions, say this is not a case of home-state bias. Dear said the research, produced from a Lexis computer-generated list of all opinions for 65 years by each of the 50 states, counted the cases “followed,” as the term is used by Shepard’s Citation Service. What began as a small project to see if legal innovation could be quantified for a 2006 panel for the California Supreme Court Historical Society program grew into a major research project, according to Dear. “It started with an attempt to objectify a perception that California is a leading court . . . to determine if it was true and is it still true,” he said. One surprising result was Washington state ranked as the second most followed. “Washington is punching above its weight,” he said. The study counted cases followed five or more times and those followed three or more times. Rankings showed that 45 opinions by the California Supreme Court were followed five or more times during the period, followed by Washington with 17, Arizona with 16 and New Jersey with 15. New York tied for 11th place with five other states � Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana and New Hampshire � among state high courts cited five or more times. But New York jumped to the No. 5 spot when the list of most-followed cases was calculated for the more recent era of cases between 1986 and 2005, according to the study. At the bottom of the rankings, the three least-followed courts were the supreme courts of Georgia, Kentucky and Ohio, each of which had no cases that were cited at least five times, according to the analysis. Suzanne Lee Elliott, a criminal defense attorney in Seattle and former executive director of the Washington Appellate Defender Association, said she plans to analyze further as to why Washington is ranked so high. “I think two factors are that Washington has a fairly active legislature,” she said. “One of the most cited cases had to do with statutory registration of sex offenders,” she said. The other may be that the court has been willing to take on tougher issues and has a docket dominated by criminal appeals. Dear said neither the population of the top states nor the output of opinions seems to have affected the results. He pointed out that Texas, second in population to California, ranked 14th, although it had twice as many opinions that could be cited based on its dual high courts, one handling civil appeals and the other criminal appeals. Three other high-population states, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida, ranked 22d, 23d and 29th, respectively. While some of the most-followed cases in California involved arcane issues such as collateral estoppel, they also included blockbusters such as People v. Wheeler, 583 P.2d 768 (Calif. 1978), which barred the use of peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based on race. Dear said the whole area should be fodder for more study, including aspects his research didn’t touch, such as how to account for opinions so influential that they immediately change the way law is practiced, but may not be cited again. Gary Spencer, spokesman for the New York Court of Appeals, that state’s highest court, declined to weigh in on the findings.

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