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January 2009

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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 cases filed in the Supreme Court decreased from 8,857 filings in the 2006 Term to 8,241 filings in the 2007 Term—a decrease of 7 percent. The number of cases filed in the Court’s in forma pauperis docket decreased from 7,132 filings in the 2006 Term to 6,627 filings in the 2007 Term—also a 7 percent decrease. The number of cases filed in the Court’s paid docket decreased from 1,723 filings in the 2006 Term to 1,614 filings in the 2007 Term—a 6 percent decrease. During the 2007 Term, 75 cases were argued and 72 were disposed of in 67 signed opinions, compared to 78 cases argued and 74 disposed of in 67 signed opinions in the 2006 Term. No cases from the 2007 Term were scheduled for reargument in the 2008 Term.

The Federal Courts of Appeals

The number of appeals filed in the regional courts of appeals in fiscal year 2008 rose by 5 percent to 61,104 filings. All categories of appeals increased except bankruptcy appeals. After declining for two consecutive years, administrative agency appeals grew by 12 percent to 11,583 filings, primarily because challenges to the Board of Immigration Appeals decisions climbed by 13 percent to 10,280 petitions for review.

Criminal appeals rose by 4 percent to 13,667 filings. That increase stems from sentencing appeals in non-marijuana drug cases. On November 1, 2007, the United States Sentencing Commission issued an amendment to its sentencing guidelines that reduced the penalties for most crack cocaine offenses and prompted numerous appeals. Civil appeals also increased by 4 percent to 31,454 filings. Prisoner petitions rose by 9 percent to 16,853 filings. Overall, non-prisoner civil appeals dropped by 1 percent to 14,601 filings. Both state and federal appeals in that category declined. Bankruptcy appeals fell by 9 percent to 773 filings. The number of original proceedings in the appeals courts decreased by 4 percent to 3,627 filings.

The Federal District Courts

Civil filings in the U.S. district courts increased by 4 percent, rising from 257,507 cases to 267,257 cases. Diversity of citizenship filings grew by 22 percent. Excluding the diversity filings, the number of civil cases decreased by 3 percent during fiscal year 2008. That decline reflects a reduction in federal question cases involving personal injury, as well as cases involving labor laws, protected property rights, and contracts.

The rise in diversity of citizenship filings, reflecting an increase of 15,838 cases, resulted primarily from the near doubling of personal injury cases related to asbestos and diet drugs in the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

Federal question case filings dropped by 3 percent to 134,582 cases. Personal injury filings declined by 46 percent (down by more than 5,200 cases) primarily as a result of large decreases in filings in the Southern District of New York and the Northern District of Alabama. The Southern District of New York, which in 2007 had reported a surge of more than 6,500 personal injury filings related to the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001, had 3,900 fewer personal injury filings this year. Labor law cases fell by 10 percent, down by more than 1,800 cases. The Northern District of Alabama, which had received more than 2,400 filings under the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2007, had 2,300 fewer of those cases in 2008. Copyright cases declined by 27 percent, down by 1,166 cases nationally.

Filings that involved the United States as plaintiff or defendant fell by 3 percent to 44,164 cases, a decline of 1,300 cases. The number of cases in which the United States was a defendant dropped by 4 percent, down by 1,385 cases, as filings of federal habeas corpus prisoner petitions decreased by 8 percent. The number of cases in which the United States was a plaintiff remained relatively stable. That number rose by less than 1 percent, as a result of a 10 percent increase in defaulted student loan cases.

The number of criminal cases filed in 2008 rose by 4 percent to 70,896 cases, and the number of defendants in those cases increased by 3 percent to 92,355 defendants. The median case disposition time for defendants declined slightly from 7.0 months in 2007 to 6.8 months in 2008, as the proportion of defendants convicted of immigration law violations, which typically have shorter processing times than other crimes, rose in the overall criminal caseload.

Immigration criminal case filings jumped by 27 percent to 21,313 cases, and the number of defendants in those cases rose by 26 percent to 22,685 defendants. That growth in immigration cases resulted mostly from filings addressing improper reentry by aliens and filings involving fraud and misuse of visa or entry permits in the five southwestern border districts. Sex offense case filings grew by 9 percent to 2,674 cases, and the number of defendants in those cases climbed by 7 percent to 2,760 defendants. The increase in sex offense filings stemmed from cases involving sexually explicit material and sex offender registration. The number of drug cases dropped by 7 percent to 15,784 cases, and the number of defendants charged with drug crimes fell by 3 percent to 28,932 defendants. Those reductions occurred when investigative agencies shifted their focus from drugs to terrorism and sex offenses.

The Bankruptcy Courts

Filings in the United States bankruptcy courts rose by 30 percent from 801,269 cases in 2007 to 1,042,993 cases in 2008. The increase in bankruptcy filings in 2008 is nearly equal to the decline in bankruptcy filings that occurred in 2007, the first fiscal year in which all 12 months of filings occurred after the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005. The bankruptcy courts received 1,112,542 filings in 2006, which encompassed the last weeks before the effective date of the Act—October 17, 2005. The number of bankruptcy filings in 2008 was 6 percent below that figure. Between 2007 and 2008, non-business filings, which accounted for 96 percent of all filings, rose by 30 percent, and business filings increased by 49 percent. Chapter 7 filings increased by 40 percent, Chapter 11 filings by 49 percent, and Chapter 13 filings by 14 percent, while Chapter 12 filings fell by 8 percent in 2008.

Pretrial Services

Both the number of defendants activated in pretrial services, including pretrial diversion cases, and the number of pretrial services reports prepared by Pretrial Services officers increased by 2 percent in 2008. The number for defendants activated increased from 96,259 persons to 98,244 persons.

Post-Conviction Supervision

In 2008, the number of persons under post-conviction supervision continued to increase, this year by 4 percent to 120,676 individuals. As of September 30, 2008, 95,159 individuals were serving terms of supervised release after serving terms of imprisonment at a correctional institution, representing 79 percent of all persons under post-conviction supervision. In comparison, during 2007, the number of persons serving terms of supervised release represented 77 percent of all those under post-conviction supervision. Persons on parole declined almost by 8 percent, from 2,575 individuals in 2007 to 2,378 individuals in 2008. Parole now accounts for less than 2 percent of post-conviction cases. Both district judges and magistrate judges are imposing fewer sentences of probation, and the number of persons on probation decreased by 994 to 22,980. That number represented 19 percent of all persons under post-conviction supervision. Approximately 46 percent of the persons under post-conviction supervision are being supervised on account of a drug-related offense.