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Donald Trump Proves Again That He Lacks Any Understanding Of The Court System

Donald Trump Proves Again That He Lacks Any Understanding Of The Court System

Donald Trump
Donald Trump
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump has been going out of his way to let the public know he has no idea how the court system works: blocking the enforcement of unconstitutional laws, appealing rulings, and appointment of judges all seem to be out of his understanding. He’s demonstrated this a number of times since the inauguration, and on Wednesday morning, he put on yet another performance.

If someone wanted a really effective way to demonstrate that they didn’t understand the appeal process, pointing out that a large percent of cases from a given court are overturned would work. An important thing to understand is that even if a large percent of cases re-heard in a higher court are overturned, it doesn’t say much about the court’s rulings overall — a tiny percent of cases are heard on appeal.

So, for instance, a case heard in the 9th Circuit and appealed might be heard again — or the appellate court might simply decline to hear it. When an appeal isn’t heard, the ruling stands. The Supreme Court of the United States hears only about 1% of the cases appealed to them. If SCOTUS overturned 80% of these rulings, that would represent only 8% of the total rulings appealed.

Thus, when Donald Trump asserts, as he did this morning, that ‘almost 80%’ of the Ninth Circuit Court’s rulings are overturned, it’s massively misleading — and quite possibly deliberately so. Trump makes it sound like the court gets it right only about one time in five, which would be a pretty big failure.

Instead, if Donald Trump’s numbers are even accurate, this would mean that 1 in five cases <em>appealed to and heard by the Supreme Court</em> are upheld — and naturally, the cases SCOTUS actually chooses to hear are those that the justices feel have some chance of being a miscarriage of justice. After all, if a case is clear-cut and the ruling is unquestionably correct, SCOTUS has no need to hear it. Even among those cases that are controversial, SCOTUS hears only a small number — about 80 per year.

Imagine, if you will, skimming all the court cases in the United States that participants thought were of enough value to appeal to the highest court in the land — around 8,000 of them — and selecting the 80 that most need the attention of a final ruling by SCOTUS.

In fact, SCOTUSblog reports that the biggest factor in a case being heard is

…conflict among different circuits over how to interpret a section of a federal statute or a constitutional provision.

What does that mean? Basically, the Supreme Court’s job is to ensure the constitution is upheld. If, for instance, different U.S. courts have different opinions on whether forbidding partners of the same sex to marry violates a constitutional right, it’s the Supreme Court’s job to, as it did in 2015, hear the case and hand down a ruling on whether the Constitution does indeed forbid such a law.

However, either failing to understand this or hoping his base would not understand it, Donald Trump tweeted Wednesday morning to complain about a Federal judge blocking an order that would have denied Federal funding to so-called ‘sanctuary cities’ — something Trump actually doesn’t have the power, as President, to do without Congress.




Of course, Trump didn’t come up with this all on his own — he tweeted complaints about the Ninth Circuit only after Fox and Friends aired, making the same assertion. It’s not the first time that Fox has offered this bait. Sean Hannity has asserted the same on his show, which offers opinion and commentary, and a piece published in February asserts that the Ninth is ‘most overturned in the U.S.’


It’s not the first time Trump has jumped on that bait, either — he repeated the same claims when the court blocked his ban on Muslims, and individuals from predominantly Muslim countries, entering the U.S.

Even apart from the fact that Donald Trump’s echo of a Fox News talking point fails to achieve even the most basic understanding of how appeals even work, it’s also highly inaccurate. As the Washington Post pointed out in March, the number of appeals heard from any given court, and the number overturned, varies from one year to the next, and cherry-picking the statistics to ‘prove’ a point isn’t hard work.

Are 80% of the cases from the Ninth District overturned? For some time periods, yes, more or less. In the 2015-2016 term, for instance, Donald Trump’s number is on point: 80% overturned. However, that’s just one term — the term before that, the Ninth Circuit had only about 60% overturned, fewer than the average of 72% that term. So, in that term, at least, the Ninth was not the ‘most overturned’ Circuit. (Sorry, Trump and Hannity.)

Above, we discussed that the number of cases heard matters. Statistics aren’t cut-and-dry — knowing the sample size is quite relevant.

So, how many cases from the Ninth Circuit are heard by SCOTUS annually? According to SCOTUSblog, relatively a large number: about a quarter of total cases heard by SCOTUS, in the past few years.

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Let’s do the math: that works out to an average of 20 Ninth Circuit cases making it to SCOTUS, and even if we accept Trump’s high estimate of 80% overturned, that works out to about 16 rulings overturned per year. According to ten years of data on Ballotpedia, between 11k and 14k cases are filed in the court — the largest District Court in the U.S. annually.

Eighteen overturned out of 11,000 (to take the most conservative number) cases works out to 1.6%.

Sorry again, Donald Trump — it may be among the most liberal districts, but it’s not too surprising that the largest District Court would make up a large percent of appeals cases, and eighteen cases overturned in a year is a pretty tiny number.

Of course, the appeals process isn’t the only court-related issue on which Donald Trump and his administration have gone out of their way to demonstrate either a complete ignorance or a blatant hypocrisy. Today, Sean Spicer released a press statement, in which he complained about the ruling — including the fact that the Judge was appointed rather than elected.

According to The Hill, Trump’s Press Secretary called the ruling

…one more example of the egregious overreach by a single, unelected district judge.

Perhaps Trump’s administration might want to take a moment to remember what he’s touted as one of his greatest accomplishments as President.


Perhaps if Trump truly felt that an appointed Judge couldn’t serve justice properly, he might have considered that in his own nomination, and asked the American people for their preference. Mr. Trump, you can’t have it both ways — is appointing someone to interpret the Constitution a great success, or is it awful that unelected Judges are appointed to rule on Constitutional issues?

The question for voters, though, is this: does Donald Trump really not understand how the court system works, or does he just think (or hope) you don’t?

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