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May 2009

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


Good Form! Working Group Restyles, Improves Federal Court Forms

U.S. District Judge Harvey Schlesinger (M.D. Fla.) knows forms. He’s the first and only chair of the Forms Working Group begun in the early 1980s. His group is responsible for updating or creating the national forms available to the courts, bar, and public. These are forms that, among other things, can be used to subpoena a witness, apply for a warrant, petition for a name change, report a filing for a patent, request to be excused from jury service—well, you get the picture. Nearly every aspect of the judicial system has a form associated with it. In fact, at one point an inventory of official forms revealed there were over 500 forms listed for use.

“Our group usually works on a few dozen forms at a time, usually when we receive comments on them from the courts or the bar,” said Schlesinger. “But AO Director James Duff asked us to take a comprehensive look at the 500 or so available forms. We started a review of just about everything to see what was in use and what could be dropped. For 60 of the national forms used in civil and criminal cases, we undertook to rewrite them in simple, modern English.”

That project, started two years ago, increased its inclusiveness by adding members representing every circuit to the working group.

“We also made sure that we had input from the people who use the forms,” said Schlesinger. “When we looked at the forms to change the district where an offender reports, or the form for an order setting conditions of release, we had the advice of probation officers. For the forms asking for pro se status, or to order a transcript, we looked to our clerks of court. Three magistrate judges helped us revise the tracking warrant form because they handle those matters daily.”

Where appropriate, subcommittees were formed within the working group to work on groups of related forms.

The working group eliminated unused or duplicative forms, refined others, and updated language to reflect rule changes.

“We were particularly aware of privacy issues and the rules on redaction that have become Judicial Conference policy since many of these forms were created,” Schlesinger said. ”The revised forms now caution filers not to include personal identifiers.”

In the end, 56 new or restyled civil and criminal forms were posted to the Judiciary’s website for national use.

“We restyled language, as they’ve done with the Rules of Practice and Procedure, to make the forms simpler, clearer, more consistent, and easier to read. Where possible, we made the forms fillable on-line and added drop boxes,” said Schlesinger.

Proposed revisions were posted for comment from the bar, the courts, and the Department of Justice. Exposure drafts drew comments from more than a quarter of the district courts.

For example, for decades the national search and seizure warrant forms have required the officer who executes a warrant to swear before the magistrate judge who issued the warrant as to the accuracy of the inventory of property taken. The working group discovered that federal rules only mandate that the warrant and inventory be verified and returned to the designated judge. The Judicial Conference Advisory Committee on Criminal Rules and the Magistrate Judges Advisory Group were consulted, and they supported changes to the form to accurately reflect the rule—and eliminate an unnecessary step.

Also, at the request of judges, a new, more detailed in forma pauperis application form was created for use in district court proceedings. The longer form is used in connection with an appeal.

All the forms are available on-line at www.uscourts.gov/forms/uscforms.cfm.