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March 2007

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


Fiscal Year 2006 Caseloads Remain At High Levels

Within an historical context, caseloads in the federal courts remain at high levels, according to statistics released by the Administrative Office. Filings of appeals were at an all-time high in 2005, having risen for 11 consecutive years. Despite a drop in 2006, bankruptcy filings remain well above the one million mark in 2006, after hitting a record level in 2005.

In FY 2006, filings in the U.S. courts of appeals fell 3 percent; overall filings in the U.S. district courts rose slightly more than 1 percent; and bankruptcy filings dropped 38 percent. The number of persons under post-conviction supervision remained stable while the number of defendants in pretrial services cases fell 3 percent.

These and other workload statistics for the federal Judiciary during the 12-month period ended September 30, 2006, can be found in Judicial Business of the U.S. Courts at http://www.uscourts.gov/judbus2006/contents.html.

U.S. Courts of Appeals

The U.S. Courts of Appeals consist of 12 regional courts and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. In the regional courts of appeals, filings declined 3 percent to 66,618 in 2006, mainly due to drops in criminal appeals and prisoner petitions, as well as in appeals of administrative agency decisions involving the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA). The only increases in filings were seen in original proceedings, which climbed 9 percent to 5,458. This increase primarily arose from a 15 percent increase in filings of second or successive motions by state prisoners seeking permission to file habeas corpus petitions pursuant to Blakely v. Washington. Original proceedings are appeals filed in the U.S. Courts of Appeals that are not dependent on prior action by a lower court.
Criminal appeals declined 5 percent to 15,246 after rising 28 percent in 2005 in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Booker. All types of criminal appeals were down, except those involving sex crimes. Sex crime appeals rose 19 percent to 504, consistent with increases in sex crime filings in the district courts.

Overall, civil appeals declined 3 percent to 31,991. Civil appeals can be broken down into those cases where the U.S. government is a party and those cases where it is not a party. Appeals of U.S. civil cases fell 8 percent to 8,527, primarily in response to a 10 percent drop in prisoner petitions by federal prisoners as the statute of limitations expired for filing cases affected by Booker. Appeals of non-U.S. civil cases decreased 1 percent to 23,464. Despite this reduction, prisoner petitions filed by state prisoners rose 3 percent to 11,129, partly because of motions for habeas corpus relief under Blakely.

Bankruptcy appeals were down 5 percent to 821. Administrative agency appeals fell 4 percent to 13,102, primarily because challenges to BIA decisions dropped 4 percent to 11,911.

U.S. District Courts

In FY 2006, total filings in the U.S. district courts rose slightly more than 1 percent to 326,401.

Civil filings increased 3 percent to 259,541 primarily because of the addition of more than 14,000 asbestos diversity of citizenship cases in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. The overall increase in filings caused the number of civil filings per authorized judgeship to rise from 374 to 383. Civil filings with the United States as plaintiff dropped 11 percent, mainly in response to declines in cases addressing defaulted student loans and foreclosures. Filings with the United States as defendant fell 17 percent as prisoner petitions decreased 33 percent. Primary contributors to the overall decrease in prisoner petitions were a 37 percent decline in motions to vacate sentence and a 33 percent drop in habeas corpus filings. These reductions may indicate a return to levels more consistent with the numbers of petitions filed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Booker.

Criminal filings fell 4 percent to 66,860 in FY 2006, and the number of defendants in these cases dropped 4 percent to 88,216. The median case disposition time for defendants climbed from 6.8 months in 2005 to 7.1 months in 2006, which may reflect the additional work required to process criminal cases affected by Booker.

Criminal filings rose for both cases and defendants in property, sex, and regulatory offenses, but declined in crimes involving violence, drugs, firearms and explosives, the justice system, immigration, traffic, and general offenses. Changes in filings stemmed from shifts in priorities of the Department of Justice, which directed resources toward counterintelligence and preventing and combating terrorism. Property offense cases remained stable, rising by 45 cases to 11,810. The overall increase in sex offense cases stemmed from growth in filings related to both sexual abuse, up 8 percent to 729 cases, and sexually explicit materials, up 5 percent to 1,156 cases.

Excluding transfers, the federal courts concluded proceedings against 87,985 defendants, an increase of 2 percent over the total for 2005. Of these defendants, 79,725 were convicted, a 91 percent conviction rate. Eighty-seven percent of defendants disposed of—convicted or dismissed—pled guilty.

Pretrial Services and Post-Conviction Supervision

The number of cases opened in the pretrial services system dropped nearly 3 percent, from 99,365 cases in 2005 to 96,479 cases in 2006. Pretrial services officers prepare pretrial services reports that help ensure that judicial officers have sufficient information for deciding whether to release or detain defendants and for selecting the least restrictive release conditions that reasonably ensure that defendants will honor future court commitments and will not endanger the community. In 2006, 92,492 pretrial services reports were prepared, 94 percent of which were pre-bail reports. In 2006, 36,134 defendants were released with specified conditions such as pretrial services supervision or home confinement. A total of 33,608, or 89 percent of the defendants, were placed under supervision, a decrease of nearly 4 percent from 2005. Substance abuse treatment and testing were ordered for almost 27 percent of the defendants. ;

On September 30, 2006, the number of persons under post-conviction supervision was 114,002, an increase of less than 1 percent over the 112,931 persons under supervision on the same date in 2005. Persons released from correctional institutions who served terms of supervised release rose 3 percent from 82,832 in 2005 to 85,729 in 2006. Parole cases, a category that includes special and military parole as well as mandatory release, dropped nearly 10 percent from 3,183 cases in 2005 to 2,876 in 2006. Probation cases received decreased nearly 3 percent from 12,955 cases in 2005 to 12,617 cases in 2006.

The number of presentence reports prepared by probation officers increased 11 percent from 66,227 in 2005 to 73,663 in 2006. Nearly 94 percent were presentence guideline reports, which are comprehensive investigative reports prepared in felony or Class A misdemeanor cases for which the U.S. Sentencing Commission has promulgated guidelines.

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Filings in the U.S. bankruptcy courts for fiscal year 2006 were the lowest since 1996. Of the total 1,112,542 bankruptcies filed, 630,228 cases, or 57 percent, were filed in the first month of the fiscal year, nearly all of them in the first 16 days of October 2005. Filings soared as debtors rushed to file petitions before October 17, 2005, the general effective date of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA). The Act provides for the filing of bankruptcy petitions under six basic chapters and created new requirements for docketing, notices, and hearings for chapter 7, increasing the amount of court effort required for these petitions. Chapter 7 filings constituted 75 percent of all petitions filed in FY 2006.

During 2006, filings involving predominantly nonbusiness debts, which accounted for 98 percent of overall filings, decreased 38 percent to 1,085,209. Filings involving predominantly business debts decreased 20 percent to 27,333.

Filings of adversary proceedings dropped 19 percent in 2006 to 65,208. Adversary proceedings are civil actions that arise in connection with bankruptcy cases and include actions to object to or revoke discharges, to obtain injunctions or other equitable relief, and to determine the dischargeability of debts.