Over the last few decades, the Court has been granting review on fewer and fewer cases every year. In the 1929-1930 term, the Court saw 981 cases on its docket and ruled on 156 of them. In the 2002-2003 term, the Court ruled on 84 of the 9,406 cases that came before it. This year is likely to be the lowest in the last 50 years and the Court has showed no sign of stopping.
Linda Greenhouse argues in a New York Times article that Congress is passing fewer laws for the Justices to interpret. The slowdown in Congressional statutes has created a hole in the Court’s docket that is only made worse by the decline in the Solicitor General’s applications for review. She later discusses the far more interesting theory that the Court’s firmly rooted liberal and conservative factions dont want to risk losing an important case and establishing precent that is not in their favor.
Another possible explanation is the method by which the justices screen the thousands of petitions. Eight of the justices, all except Justice John Paul Stevens, pool their law clerks and have only one clerk make the initial recommendation for each case. The recommendation is not binding, of course. But there is a built-in “institutional conservatism” in which law clerks are afraid to look overly credulous and so are reluctant to recommend a grant
Regardless of why the Court has taken fewer and fewer cases every year, the Court’s annual impact on jurisprudence has not changed. The Court is still able to tinker with statues, but has to do more with less every year.