It doesn’t take long for those who read judicial opinions to come across an unsigned, “per curiam” decision. Many decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, federal circuit courts, and our state Supreme Court are short-ish opinions that are not ascribed to a single judge or justice. There is a long history of using such opinions “by the court.”

The most recent batch of opinions from the Court of Appeals included 5 unpublished per curiam opinions. Could these per curiam opinions be a product of COVID-related modifications to the Court’s working environment? Is it relevant that several of the opinions were Anders cases? Or does this group of per curiam opinions reflect a growing trend at the Court of Appeals?

Although per curiam decisions by the Court of Appeals are still few and far between, the number has seen a slight increase over the past few years:

2012 3
2013 3
2014 2
2015 1
2016 2
2017 4
2018 6
2019 6

Per curiam decisions are a relatively recent phenomenon for the Court of Appeals. Although I can’t claim that my search was exhaustive, the earliest per curiam Court of Appeals decisions I could find were from 1994: Bustle v. Rice, 116 N.C. App. 658, 449 S.E.2d 10 (1994) (dismissing the appeal) and Richardson v. Patterson, 116 N.C. App. 661, 448 S.E.2d 861 (1994) (finding no error). But the slight uptick in numbers appears to be in accord with a national trend.

And although the most recent five were all unpublished, criminal cases, previous per curiam opinions from the Court of Appeals have included civil cases as well as published decisions. Likewise, although the most recent five were all from the same panel, previous per curiam decisions have involved other judges.

What, if anything, is to be gleaned from the Court’s decision to file a per curiam opinion? After all, “[p]er curiam decisions stand upon the same footing as those in which fuller citations of authorities are made and more extended opinions are written.” Tinajero v. Balfour Beatty Infrastructure, Inc., 233 N.C. App. 748, 761, 758 S.E.2d 169, 177 (2014).

The practice is not without controversy. Some scholars have criticized the practice. On the other hand, it is fairly well accepted that the Supreme Court of North Carolina will almost always file a per curiam opinion in certain types of cases. Is the same true for the Court of Appeals? If a decision is unpublished and relatively uncontroversial, is there any need to attach a single judge’s name to the opinion? Is there a benefit to having an opinion be seen—or not seen—as authored by a particular jurist? Is a panel trying to signal something about a particular case by issuing a per curiam decision? Or is the practice simply a presumed part of judicial decision-making?

Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

–Kip Nelson