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After years of steadily increasing caseload, there may finally be some relief in sight for U. S. District Court judges — and for the parties vying for the judges’ limited time.
On March 14, the Administrative Office of the U. S. Courts released its annual report “The Judicial Business of the United States.” The report showed that the total number of civil cases filed was slightly up in 1999 compared to the previous year, but the figure was still below its 1997 peak and the number of cases pending had declined for the second year straight year. The report also showed that, while it is common to target litigious parties for overburdening the court system, it is the federal government that is causing the increase in caseload, while the number of private civil suits is on the decline.
260,271 civil cases were filed with District Courts in 1999 compared with 256,787 in 1998. The primary factor behind the increase was a 33% rise in filings by the Federal Government. Private case filings involving federal question jurisdiction actually fell by 1% and those involving diversity of citizenship declined by 4%. The increase in federal filings is largely attributable to a 56% jump in lawsuits to collect on student loans – from 14,080 cases filed in 1998 to 21,915 in 1999. Factoring out the increase in these collection cases, the number of cases filed showed a 1.7% decline.
Civil case filings peaked in 1997 at 272,602, and have since declined by 4.5%, but they are still 13.9% above the 1993 level. In the past five years, the total number of civil filings has risen 5% (11,936 cases). With the Department of Education and Social Security Administration stepping up their collection programs, these two agencies alone have accounted for an increase of over 25,000 cases during this period.
Meanwhile, private civil case filings have shown a five year drop of 5% (10,349 cases). One major factor in this decline has been the statutory and case law changes regarding civil rights petitions filed by state prisoners. A second factor has been a reduction in personal injury/product liability cases, chiefly those relating to silicone breast implants. Prisoner petitions have dropped for two straight years and federal question personal injury/product liability cases have registered three straight years of decline. Many other categories of private civil actions have also contributed to the decline over the past five years including insurance (-2.9%), non-product liability personal injury (-5.7%), environmental (-17.3%) and copyright (-13.4%).
A record 272,526 civil cases were terminated in 1999, up 3.9% (10,225) from the previous year. The largest element in this increase was the over 18,000 breast implant cases that were terminated in the Northern District of Alabama.
A total of 14,993 civil and criminal trials were completed in 1999, a decline of 7% from the previous year and a five-year drop of 13%. Civil jury trials showed a five-year drop of 11% and non-jury civil trials declined by 23%. Less than 3% of the civil cases went to trial. Of those going to trial, three quarters required three or fewer days of trial and less than 1% (45) lasted 20 or more days. The longest trial, a certain antitrust action filed by the federal government, lasted 73 days. The median time from filing to disposition for all civil actions was 9 months. For those which went to trial, there was a median disposition time of 19 months, with 10% taking over 40 months.
Pending Civil Caseload
Despite the increased number of cases filed by the Federal Government, the decline in private civil actions filed and the increase in cases terminated has caused the number of pending cases to decline for the a second straight year. While the 1999 figure was still higher than it was in 1995, it is lower than any year since that time and represents an 8.2% drop from its 1997 peak.
Since all cases do not require the same level of judicial involvement, the courts use a weighted system to more accurately measure the caseload. Under the current system, developed by the Federal Judicial Center in 1993, a typical criminal or civil matter receives a weight of 1.0. A more time-consuming case receives a higher weight, such as a 5.99 weight for a death penalty habeas corpus matter, while a defaulted student loan case has a weight 1/200 as high (0.031).
Under this system, the total number of weighted filings per judgeship was 472 in 1999, down 2% from 1998’s figure of 484, but still 5% higher than the 1995 level. Criminal cases, primarily drug and immigration matters, were the source of the overall increase, while the weighted civil caseload has dropped 3% since 1995.
For more detailed information, the complete text of this year’s Judicial Business report, and other reports used in preparing this article, are available from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts at www.uscourts.gov.