Like most lawyers with a case pending before the Texas Supreme Court, Ann Coffin advised her client that it could be up to a year after oral argument before the high court ruled.

“We told them the fastest we could anticipate a decision is four or five months and maybe longer than a year,” Coffin says.

As it turns out, Coffin didn’t need to bother with that bit of client counseling. Just 64 days after she argued Atmos Energy Corp., et al. v. Cities of Allen, et al., the Supreme Court decided the declaratory judgment case in favor of Coffin’s client Atmos. In the Nov. 18, 2011, opinion, a unanimous court affirmed lower court rulings that the Gas Utility Regulatory Act permits a gas utility company to file a new tariff before the Texas Railroad Commission that adjusts its base rates to recover the costs of new capital investment.

Atmos was the quickest call the Texas Supreme Court made in a regularly docketed case during its 2011-2012 term, which began on Sept. 1, 2011, and ended on Aug. 31, 2012. It’s a surprising turnaround time for a court that just five years ago took two to three years to issue decisions in some cases.

Coffin and her client were pleased. The opinion gives certainty to Atmos and other utility companies. They now know they won’t have to endure lengthy rate case battles before the Railroad Commission to recover capital investment costs.

“I think it’s a credit to the court that they got it out as quickly as they did,” says Coffin, a partner in Austin’s Parsley Coffin Renner.

She notes that the justices asked pointed questions during oral argument and the case was well briefed by all of the parties.

“It seemed that they had thoroughly analyzed the questions and they just needed to tie up some loose ends,” Coffin says of the court.

Jose E. de la Fuente, a principal in Austin’s Lloyd Gosselink who represented a group of cities in Atmos, declines comment. Tom Kelley, a spokesman for the Texas Office of the Attorney General, which represented the Texas Railroad Commission, says the office is pleased with the decision.

According to Austin solo Pamela Stanton Baron’sannual review of the Texas Supreme Court, released on Sept. 6, the court substantially reduced its backlog and improved its time to disposition. For example, the court ended its 2006-2007 term without deciding 57 cases. That number was seven as of the end of the 2011-2012 term.

The court also was averaging 12 months to decide cases after oral argument at the end of its 2010-2011 term, according to Baron’s report. But at the end of the 2011-2012 term, that average was seven months. [See "Average Time Between Oral Argument and Release of Opinion," below.]

Texas’ appellate bar — the same group of lawyers who used to complain about the court’s backlog of undecided cases — is noticing the court’s speedy disposition time, says Kurt Kuhn, an appellate attorney and partner in Austin’s Kuhn Hobbs.

Getting rid of a backlog of cases has made it easier for the court to issue decisions more quickly, Kuhn says. “The court has a clean slate now. And now there isn’t a stack of cases that they’re worrying about,” Kuhn says. “If you have a backlog, you’re not looking at the cases coming in as hard. And now they have time to look at what’s coming next. I think you’ve got to give Chief Justice [Wallace] Jefferson credit for that. There was a lot of criticism years ago about the backlog. And he took it to heart.”

Action Plan

Efficiency in deciding cases has been a top priority of the court, Jefferson says. “The court was committed as a whole to substantially reducing the number of cases carried over from one term to the next. And so we have added additional conferences as a court to discuss pending cases. We extended conferences longer into the summer than we had traditionally done,” Jefferson says. “And we simply . . . decided to be as quick as possible while fully considering each case on the merits.”

For the past two court terms, the Texas Legislature has required Jefferson to present an annual report to the governor and the Legislative Budget Board that details the court’s backlog, Jefferson notes.

“I think that requirement played a minor role” in reducing the backlog, Jefferson says. “But, as you know, between 2001 and 2005 there was dramatic turnover on the court. We had a new justice every year or so. That slows the court’s work down precipitously. From 2005 until now we’ve had relatively low turnover. And the court is able to coalesce around opinions much faster.”

However, the court will have two new justices in the coming months. Justice David Medina, who lost a Republican primary challenge to former Houston district court Judge John Devine, will leave the bench at the end of the year. And on Sept. 19, Justice Dale Wainwright announced that he will leave the court at the end of September to join the Austin office of Bracewell & Giuliani.

“[N]evertheless, as I’ve said before, there’s going to be a difference of opinion on the cases that we have here. And there’s a period where they get used to us and we get used to the new judge,” Jefferson says. “And that can have an impact on the docket. But I can tell you that the court is committed to continuing the progress that we made.”

Texas Supreme Court Caseload
Published Opinions in 2011-2012 Term
  
Justice Majority Per Curiam Concur Dissent Concur/Dissent Total
Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson 6 9 1 4 0 20
Justice Nathan L. Hecht 8 4 2 3 2 19
Justice Dale Wainwright 9 3 2 0 0 14
Justice David Medina 5 3 0 1 0 9
Justice Paul W. Green 4 3 0 0 0 7
Justice Phil Johnson 6 3 0 2 0 11
Justice Don R. Willett 4 3 2 3 2 14
Justice Eva M. Guzman 7 5 0 4 0 16
Justice Debra H. Lehrmann 7 5 1 3 2 18
Total 56 38 8 20 6 128
Note: With the exception of Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, the justices are listed in order of seniority.
Numbers are for Sept. 1, 2011, to Aug. 31, 2012.
Source: Texas Supreme Court Clerk’s Office.
Texas Lawyer, September 2012
Average Time Between Oral Argument
and Release of Opinion
 
Term Time From Oral Argument to Opinion
2008-2009 12 months
2009-2010 12 months
2010-2011 12 months
2011-2012 7 months
Source: Pamela Stanton Baron’s “Annual Review: The Texas Supreme Court 2012.”
Note: Each term listed ended on Aug. 31.
Texas Lawyer, September 2012