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January 2006

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This article is in the news archives --- for current news go to the Third Branch News.



Workload of the Courts

The Supreme Court of the United States

The total number of case filings in the Supreme Court decreased from 7,814 in the 2003 Term to 7,496 in the 2004 Term—a decrease of 4.1 percent. Filings in the Court's in forma pauperis docket decreased from 6,092 to 5,755—a 5.5 percent decline. The Court's paid docket increased by 19 cases, from 1,722 to 1,741—a 1.1 percent increase. During the 2004 Term, 87 cases were argued and 85 were disposed of in 74 signed opinions, compared to 91 cases argued and 89 disposed of in 73 signed opinions in the 2003 Term. No cases from the 2004 Term were scheduled for reargument in the 2005 Term.

The Federal Courts’ Caseload

Filings in the U.S. bankruptcy courts surged to an all-time record during 2005, rising 10 percent to 1,782,643. This growth stemmed from the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. Nonbusiness filings increased 10 percent, and business petitions decreased 2 percent. While chapter 7 and chapter 12 filings grew 17 percent and 53 percent, respectively, chapter 11 and chapter 13 filings dropped 36 percent and 6 percent, respectively. The reduction in chapter 11 filings represented a return to a more typical level after last year’s 220 percent rise in chapter 11 petitions filed in the Southern District of New York. Bankruptcy filings have soared 60 percent over the last 10 years.

Appeals also reached new levels due in part to a surge in criminal appeals and prisoner petitions. Filings in the regional courts of appeals rose 9 percent to an all-time high of 68,473, marking the 10th consecutive record-breaking year and the 11th successive year of growth. This increase stemmed from upswings in criminal appeals, original proceedings, and prisoner petitions following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions in Blakely v. Washington, 542 U.S. 296 (2004) and U.S. v. Booker, 543 U.S. 220 (2005), and from continued growth in appeals of administrative agency decisions involving the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). As large as the increase is, it would have been higher had not the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit's operations been affected by Hurricane Katrina. That court’s data include 92 appeals filings for the month of September, significantly lower than the 700 to 1,000 it reported for each month from October 2004 to August 2005. Nationwide, criminal appeals rose 28 percent to 16,060. The largest increases were in cases involving drugs (up 31 percent to 6,099), immigration (up 55 percent to 2,896), firearms and explosives (up 23 percent to 2,505), and property (up 15 percent to 1,967). Administrative agency appeals rose 12 percent to 13,713, primarily due to challenges to BIA decisions, which began rising in 2002. Appeals filings have increased 32 percent since 1996.

In contrast, district court civil filings declined by 10 percent, primarily as a result of decreases in federal question filings and diversity of citizenship cases. Specifically, total federal question filings dropped 16 percent because of the substantial decline in filings (19,630 cases) in the District of South Carolina. In the previous year, an abnormally high number of cases related to personal property financial investments were filed in this district. Federal question filings related to civil rights also fell last year, declining by 10 percent. Most of these cases involved employment issues and other types of civil rights issues.

Total diversity of citizenship filings dropped 8 percent, mainly as a result of a 15 percent decrease in personal injury/product liability filings. The District of Minnesota reported a large drop in cases involving the anti-cholesterol drug Baycol. The Central District of California reported declines in multidistrict litigation cases involving both hormone replacement therapy medication and diet drugs. The Northern District of Ohio saw a major decrease in filings in multidistrict litigation cases which addressed claims of injuries caused by welding rods containing manganese.

Filings with the United States as plaintiff or defendant rose 8 percent. Cases with the United States as defendant climbed 9 percent, mainly as a result of a 29 percent jump in prisoner petitions. Especially significant was the 45 percent rise in motions to vacate sentence. In addition, federal habeas corpus prisoner petitions increased 16 percent. Increases in both motions to vacate sentence and federal habeas corpus prisoner petitions are, in part, related to the Booker decision. Filings related to the recovery of defaulted student loans and drug-related seizures of property increased 18 percent and 6 percent, respectively.

Over the past 10 years, civil filings have declined 6 percent, mostly as a result of decreases in prisoner petitions, civil rights employment cases, and personal injury/product liability cases.

Criminal filings dropped by a small amount, as did the number of defendants in cases activated by pretrial services. Persons under postconviction supervision remained stable at 112,931.

Criminal case filings declined 2 percent to 69,575, and defendants in these cases declined one percent to 92,226. This drop was likely attributable in part to the effects of Hurricane Katrina. After Katrina, district courts in the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits reported fewer cases than normal. The decrease in filings in 2005 lowered the cases per authorized judgeship from 105 to 102. The median case disposition time for defendants rose from 6.2 months in 2004 to 6.8 months in 2005, as courts took longer to process post-Booker cases.

Overall drug cases declined 1 percent to 18,198; the numbers of defendants, however, rose 1 percent to 32,637. Immigration filings rose less than 1 percent, but, nonetheless, stood at record high levels of 17,134 cases and 18,322 defendants. Prosecution of sex offenses rose 9 percent to 1,779 cases, primarily due to an increase in filings of sexually explicit material cases. The criminal filing category with the largest numeric increase was non-marijuana drug filings, as cases went up 5 percent to 13,102 and defendants climbed 6 percent to 25,121. Firearms and explosives cases declined 4 percent to 9,207 cases. This year’s decrease was the first since 1996, a period during which criminal case filings grew 45 percent.

The number of defendants in pretrial services system cases opened in 2005, including pretrial diversion cases, fell less than 1 percent to 99,365. Nevertheless, pretrial services officers prepared 1 percent more pretrial reports, and the number of defendants interviewed increased 2 percent. In conjunction with all pretrial services cases closed during the year, a total of 231,060 pretrial hearings were held, an increase of 4 percent over the total in 2004. During the past 10 years, cases activated in the pretrial services system have increased 52 percent.

Persons serving terms of supervised release following their release from prison totaled 82,832 on September 30, 2005, and they constituted 73 percent of all persons under postconviction supervision. The number of individuals on parole declined 5 percent to 2,778 and made up only 2 percent of those under supervision. The number of persons on probation declined 8 percent to 26,554, due to a continuing drop in the imposition of sentences of probation by both district judges and magistrate judges. Of the 112,931 persons under postconviction supervision, 44 percent had been convicted of a drug-related offense, the same as one year ago. There are now 27 percent more persons under postconviction supervision than there were in 1996.