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December 1998

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


Five-Year Retrospective Takes Stock

A look back at five years of federal court caseloads reveals not only trends in filings, but also what factors influence filings.

It is little surprise that the overall federal caseload has been on the upswing since 1992. According to the Federal Judicial Caseload, A Five-Year Retrospective, published by the Administrative Office, filings between July 1, 1992 and June 30, 1997, of new cases in the appellate and bankruptcy courts reached record heights. In that time too, filings of criminal cases and defendants reached their highest levels since Prohibition was repealed in 1933.

"The retrospective shows that the workload of the federal Judiciary has increased dramatically," said AO Director Leonidas Ralph Mecham. "But this 5-year look back not only gives us perspective, it tells us what influences our caseload. All indications are that our future caseloads will be larger and the demands on judicial resources even greater in the years to come."  


The retrospective shows that in 1997 civil case filings declined for the first time since 1991, largely because two of the major categories contributing to total civil filings—personal injury cases and prisoner petitions—dropped substantially. Why? Beginning June 25, 1992, breast implant cases were transferred from the state courts to federal courts. Due to the continued removal of breast implant cases from state courts to federal courts, personal injury filings increased 54 percent between 1995 and 1996. Many of these cases were filed twice, first when they were removed to fed-eral courts and a second time when they were transferred to the Northern District of Alabama. By 1997 fewer breast implant cases were filed, and personal injury cases fell 24 percent.

Prisoner petitions fell 7 percent from 1996 to 1997, even though the number of cases had been increasing steadily since 1993. The fall was produced by a 30 percent drop in a single category of prisoner petitions, prisoner civil rights. What triggered the decline? In April 1996, Congress passed the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA), which seeks to reduce the filing of frivolous petitions, in part, by imposing filing fees. Interestingly, the number of prisoner petitions rose for a short time as prisoners rushed to file petitions before the law—and new filing fees—took affect.

Changes in old laws also have im-pacted filings. The number of diver-sity filings has been affected by a change in the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction. Diversity filings grew 11 per-cent from 1993 to 1997. In 1996, how-ever, 28 U.S. C. §1332 was amended to increase the amount in controversy requirement for diversity jurisdiction cases from $50,000 to $75,000. The next year, diversity filings dropped 11 percent. This was not completely unexpected; a similar downward shift occurred in 1989 when the jurisdictional amount was increased from $10,000 to $50,000 and diversity cases continued to decline from 1989 to 1992. But it may not be entirely the amount in controversy that has driven the number of diversity cases.

The 1997 drop may be due to a drop in breast implant cases.

It is not always changes in the law that account for caseload shifts. Contract actions increased 16 percent in 1997 because of a 147 percent increase in filings to recover overpayments related to defaulted student loans. The U.S. Department of Education said the increase was due to its streamlined delinquent loan processing system.


From 1993 to 1997 criminal cases filed increased 7 percent. From 1993 through 1995, however, there was a 3 percent decline in cases filed. Drug cases, which have a major influence on total criminal filings, fell 8 percent during that time. Was there a decline in crime? Actually, between 1993 and 1994, assistant U.S. attorney positions in the Department of Justice (DOJ) were frozen, which resulted in fewer criminal cases being filed. After the freeze was lifted, from 1995 to 1997, the number of criminal defendants in cases filed increased 9 percent.

DOJ staffing also may have influenced another category of criminal cases: immigration. These cases grew 200 percent between 1992 and 1997. In this time DOJ increased its efforts to secure the southwestern U.S. border with initiatives emphasizing the prosecution of alien smuggling and of attempted reentry by deported aliens or aliens previously convicted of felonies. As a result, the Southern District of California led the nation in immigration filings in 1997.  

Enforcement policies have affected other areas of criminal filings. Drunk driving and traffic cases dropped from 1993 to 1997, affected by changes in enforcement policies for military bases in Hawaii, as well as changes in enforcement priorities by local U.S. attorneys and by park policy within federal parks.


Growing civil and criminal district court caseloads eventually increase the number of appeals filed. Appeals filings rose 5 percent between 1993 and 1997, caused mainly by a 29 percent increase in prisoner petition appeals. Prisoner petition appeals now constitute 31 percent of the appellate caseload. The year 1996 saw a boost in prisoner petitions traceable to the 1995 Supreme Court decision in Bailey v. U.S., as well as the enactment of the PLRA and the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996. As noted pre-viously, many inmates rushed to file petitions before the PLRA fee require-ment took affect.

Other prisoner appeals may have been filed in light of Bailey, which established that for enhanced penalties to apply for using a firearm during a drug traf-ficking offense or crime of violence, a defendant actually must have used a gun while committing the offense. In addition, appeals may have been filed in reaction to the Antiterrorism Act, which sets strict time limits for acting on habeas corpus petitions and motions for rehearing.

Generally, filings for civil appeals rose 11 percent. Criminal appeals have fluctuated since 1993, affected between 1993 and 1994 by the same DOJ hiring freeze that reduced criminal filings in district courts. After declining in 1994 and 1995, criminal appeals rose 1 percent from 1996 to 1997. Drug appeals also constituted a smaller percentage of criminal appeals filed, declining from 51 percent in 1993 to 45 percent in 1997.



In 1996, bankruptcy filings topped the one million mark for the first time, part of the long-term rise in filings during which the number of cases has increased 43 percent between 1993 and 1997. The vast majority of bankruptcy cases, 96 percent in 1997, are non-business or personal bankruptcies. Non-business cases rose 48 percent between 1993 and 1997. The rise in bankruptcy filings is most likely connected to the greater availability of consumer credit—which has produced record levels of debt as a percentage of personal income.


The Judiciary applies weights to filings in district courts as a means of accounting for differences in the time required for judges to resolve various types of civil and criminal actions. From 1993 to 1997, the total number of weighted civil and criminal filings per district judgeship climbed 13 percent. The weighted filing system was changed in 1993 to assign weights to criminal cases on a per defendant basis rather than on a per case basis.

Between 1995 and 1997, the number of criminal defendants in cases filed increased 9 percent due to an increase in drug cases filed. Drug cases typically require nearly twice the amount of work of judges and more judicial resources. For example, in 1997 the number of defendants in a non-drug case was 1.22, while the number of defendants per drug cases averaged 1.91.

With the increased bankruptcy caseload, the workload of the bankruptcy courts has expanded and courts have worked hard to keep pace. From 1995 to 1997, pending cases grew 22 percent, even though nationwide terminations were 31 percent higher in the same time period. The number of filings per authorized bankruptcy judgeship is 43 percent greater than the 1993 average and 26 percent greater than the average for 1996.

A five-year retrospective on the caseload confirms expectations that overall filings will continue to increase. And while anticipating these trends and projecting workloads helps distribute judicial resources where they are most needed, there are areas where the Judiciary cannot provide remedies. The Judiciary does not control its workload, which increases nearly every year. An increasing caseload translates to an increasing workload. Yet, no new Article III judgeships have been created since 1990, and no new bankruptcy judgeships have been created since 1992.