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The Most Important Supreme Court Cases of the Term -- by Citation

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Some cases from the last term will take awhile to make their impact in lower courts. There are only so many abortion restrictions to overthrow, for example. District courts aren't often called to interpret "one person, one vote."

But some cases have quickly impacted litigation, garnering hundreds of citations in district, appellate, and state courts in just a matter of months. These are the decisions that may not make the most headlines, but they seem to be having the most impact.

The Top Five, by Lower Court Citation

The top cases of the Supreme Court's most recent term, when measured by their citation by lower courts, all deal with criminal law. Adam Feldman, of Empirical SCOTUS, tallied up the Court's most impactful decisions by looking at "the relative number of times they had been cited by a combination of federal and state lower courts."

Here are the top five:

  1. Welch v. United States, 765 citations
  2. Montgomery v. Louisiana, 373 citations
  3. Mullenix v. Luna, 213 citations
  4. Ross v. Blake, 107 citations
  5. Mathis v. United States, 75 citations

Why Criminal Cases Dominate

That the top cases would be criminal law decisions isn't too surprising. Had the Court made a landmark decision on standing or revisited its summary judgment jurisprudence, we could expect a different outcome, but this term was heavy on criminal law cases that had a broad impact on accused and convicted individuals.

In Ross, for example, the Supreme Court made litigation by prisoners a bit more difficult, by rejecting the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" exception to the limitations placed in the Prison Litigation Reform Act. In Mullenix, the Court determined that an officer who shot at a fleeing suspect's car, despite instructions not to, could be entitled to qualified immunity. Both of those cases have changed how courts analyze PLRA requirements and qualified immunity cases.

The two most impactful cases, however, were really about the Supreme Court's slightly older opinions. In Montgomery, the Court ruled that its prior decision in Miller v. Alabama applied retroactively. In Miller, the Court ruled that sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole violated the Eighth Amendment. Montgomery meant that thousands of inmates could benefit from that decision.

Similarly, in Welch, the Court found that last year's Johnson v. United States was fully retroactive. That decision knocked out the "residual clause" in the federal Armed Career Criminal Act, the federal 3-strikes law.

Both Montgomery and Welch launched an armada of cases, as inmates challenged their earlier convictions -- and succeeded. Montgomery was cited 249 times in state court, according to Empirical SCOTUS. Welch has been cited 217 times in the Eleventh Circuit alone.

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