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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.
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.
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
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
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
U.S. District Courts
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
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
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.