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November 2007

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


A Decade of Change in the Federal Courts Caseload: Fiscal Years 1997-2006

Supreme Court decisions, shifting Administration priorities, new legislation, and numerous other factors caused the composition of the federal courts’ caseload to change over the past decade. Between September 30, 1997 and September 30, 2006, appeals court filings steadily climbed, district court caseloads fluctuated, and bankruptcy filings hit a record high before tumbling following the enactment of sweeping bankruptcy reform legislation. What are the identifiable caseload trends and what are the forces behind the changing nature of the federal courts’ caseload?

Filings in the 12 regional courts of appeals rose 27 percent between FY 1997 and FY 2006, achieving a record high number in FY 2005 when there were 68,473 appeals filed.

Criminal Appeals
In the courts of appeals, the Supreme Court’s 2005 decision in U.S. v. Booker triggered a dramatic temporary increase in criminal appeals. Between FY 1997 and FY 2004, the number of criminal appeals had climbed 19 percent. After the Booker decision on the federal sentencing guidelines there was a 28 percent rise in criminal appeals. By the end of FY 2006, filings had subsided 5 percent, but their total was still 22 percent above the pre-Booker 2004 totals.

Appeals of drug cases and cases involving firearms and explosives historically have ranked among the largest categories of criminal appeals. Starting in FY 2006, there was a newcomer to the group, immigration appeals. These cases accounted for just 3 percent of all criminal appeals in FY 1997, but by FY 2005 the annual total rose nearly 700 percent from 367 immigration appeals to 2,896 immigration appeals. Immigration appeals remain the second-largest category of criminal appeals.

Civil Appeals
Throughout the ten-year period, civil appeals accounted for the greatest proportion of appeals filed. Prisoner petition appeals, accounting for approximately half of all civil appeals each year between FY 1997 and FY 2006, grew 4 percent, even as all other types of civil appeals fell.

Administrative Agency Appeals
Administrative agency appeals nearly tripled in the last decade, rising from 4,412 appeals in FY 1997 to 13,102 in FY 2006. Appeals of administrative decisions involving the Board of Immigration Appeals accounted for nearly all of this increase. These appeals are challenges to the decisions of the Board and generally pertain to people seeking to immigrate to the U.S. or to change their immigration status. Appeals of Board decisions rose initially in response to the Attorney General’s reorganization of the Board in 2002, when new case review guidelines and processing time standards were instituted. The growth continued as the Board received more cases each year through 2004, and the rate of challenges to Board decisions increased.

Original Proceedings
A change in how certain cases are reported, prisoners looking to reduce their sentences, and the continued effects of Supreme Court decisions in Blakely v. Washington, and Booker, contributed to a sevenfold increase in original proceedings filings between FY 1997 and FY 2006. Original proceedings rose from 814 to 5,458 cases in that time.

When certain types of filings, including pro se mandamus petitions for which filing fees were not paid, began to be recorded as original proceedings requiring judicial review on the merits, a surge occurred. Filings rose 349 percent in FY 1999.

In FY 2000, the Supreme Court’s Apprendi v. New Jersey decision led many prisoners seeking to reduce their sentences to file habeas corpus motions. These filings peaked at a record high of 5,876 petitions in FY 2001 as prisoners rushed to file before a one-year deadline. Filings fell for two subsequent years, until a 13 percent increase in FY 2004, a 23 percent rise in FY 2005, and a 9 percent increase in FY 2006, all due to prisoners filing motions to vacate judgment in response to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Blakely and Booker.

U.S. District Courts

Criminal Caseload
Criminal cases rose 34 percent between FY 1997 and FY 2006. In that decade, there were increases in prosecutions of immigration, drug, firearms and explosives, and sex crimes—and filings for all four categories reached their highest historic levels. The growth stemmed from Department of Justice initiatives specifically targeting these types of offenses and also from new legislation that amended sex crime laws to include crimes committed using electronic media.

Drug case filings increased 41 percent as the Department of Justice directed additional resources to the southwestern border of the United States and to High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. By FY 2002, one-third of all drug cases were attributed to the five southwestern border districts. The Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act, enacted in 1996, also contributed to the increase in drug filings.

Immigration cases soared 145 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2006 as Congress increased funding to hire more border patrol agents and the DOJ prosecuted a larger number of individuals crossing the southwestern border illegally. Over the past decade, the volume of immigration case filings has increased 182 percent in the five border courts. In FY 1997, the southwestern border districts accounted for 60 percent of all immigration case filings in the nation. By FY 2006, this number had increased to 70 percent.

Firearms and explosives cases rocketed upward 153 percent in the last decade, reaching record levels in FY 2004. Contributing factors in the rise were the implementation by law enforcement agencies nationwide of programs modeled on Project Exile and Operation Ceasefire; the prosecution of more firearms violations under federal laws where the penalties were more severe than under state laws; and the hiring of 94 U.S. assistant attorneys, part of the Project Safe Neighborhood initiative, to focus on the prosecution of firearms law violations.

Civil Caseload
Sporadic surges in civil filings have occurred over the past ten years. In FY 2001 there was a jump in personal injury/product liability cases, and again in FY 2004 as filings for this type of case climbed. Filings increased in FY 2006, as 14,000 asbestos cases were added to the docket of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Personal injury cases increased 20 percent over the last decade, although there was a 45 percent dip in cases from FY 1997 to FY 2001. This was due to a slowdown in the number of breast implant cases filed. Then in FY 2002, personal injury case filings soared 98 percent fueled by a large number of “friction product” cases alleging injuries from asbestos and involving the big three automakers and Honeywell International. In addition, a large number of cases involving the Bayer Company’s drug Baycol were transferred to the District of Minnesota. In FY 2004, case filings rose in response to litigation for diet drugs in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and for welding rods containing manganese in the Northern District of Ohio. FY 2006 saw a substantial jump in filings related to asbestos in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

In addition to personal injury cases, civil case filings consist primarily of prisoner petitions, contract actions and civil rights cases. Prisoner petitions decreased 13 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2006, influenced by three court rulings and two new laws. The Prison Litigation Reform Act and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, both enacted in 1996, dampened the likelihood that prisoners would file new petitions. Nonetheless, from FY 1998 to FY 2001, filings increased steadily, partly because petitioners affected by the Supreme Court’s 2000 Apprendi ruling had a one-year filing deadline. After the deadline for filing expired, prisoner petitions fell, hitting their lowest point in ten years in FY 2003. The Court’s ruling in Blakely contributed to a rise in filings of motions to vacate sentence, and the 2005 decision in Booker led to another surge. By FY 2006, however, filings had decreased to levels seen prior to the Booker ruling.

Contract case filings increased 31 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2000 largely due to an intensified effort by the Department of Education to collect on defaulted student loans, but after FY 2001, as the number of student loan filings decreased, the number of contract cases plummeted. It wasn’t until FY 2006 that contract case filings again increased, rising 7 percent as insurance case filings soared in districts impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

Diversity filings increased 45 percent from FY 1997 to FY 2006. Although filings tapered off after the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction cases was increased in 1997, cases rebounded in FY 2001 through FY 2004 with several high profile personal injury/product liability cases centralized by the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation. In FY 2006, diversity filings related to asbestos caused a 29 percent increase in total filings.

U.S. Bankruptcy Courts

Following declines in FY 1999 and FY 2000, bankruptcies reached record levels in four of the next six years. Although dipping slightly in FY 2004, filings surged to 1.78 million in FY 2005 as petitioners anticipated enactment of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act (BAPCPA) of 2005.

The rise in bankruptcy filings between FY 1997 and FY 1998 most likely was linked to high levels of consumer debt as a percentage of personal income. Following four years of increases to record heights, filings fell 6 percent in FY 1999 and 7 percent in FY 2000. Filings climbed again in FY 2001, FY 2002, and FY 2003. These petitions most likely arose from high consumer debt combined with slowing economic growth during this period. FY 2005 saw bankruptcy filings soar to an all-time high before BAPCPA took effect on October 17, 2005. In the months after BAPCPA was implemented, filings were very low, rising gradually from 15,000 per month to approximately 60,000 per month by the end of fiscal year 2006—which is still well below the number of pre-BAPCPA filings.

The pattern of bankruptcy filings has affected the workload of the bankruptcy courts. The courts received more cases than they were able to terminate in seven out of the ten years of the period. Following BAPCPA, there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of work per bankruptcy petition, as motions per case have increased 59 percent, orders filed per case have risen 35 percent, and notices sent have grown 41 percent.