Court Backlog

October 7, 1983

Report Outline
Growing Caseload Gult
Causes of the Problem
Changing the System
High Court's Problems
Special Focus

Growing Caseload Gult

Mounting Concern Over Backlog Problem

The U.S. Supreme Court opened its 1983–84 session on Oct. 3. If recent trends are an indication, Chief Justice Warren E. Burger and most of his colleagues will again complain that the court's caseload is too heavy. Although Burger has been complaining about the heavy workload since assuming his position in 1969, the size of the court's docket — the register of cases filed with the court — has grown by nearly 25 percent during his tenure. “The real risk is that the institution will be submerged gradually, by placing on it burdens that cannot adequately be carried,” Burger said last November. Since then, Burger has renewed his calls for means of relief, including the creation of an intermediate federal appellate court that could handle some of the Supreme Court's workload.

The problems of the Supreme Court are symbolic of, and in part a result of, the increased volume of cases handled by the lower courts. The civil caseload of the federal district courts increased by nearly 75 percent between 1977–78 and 1982–83. State and local courts, which in populous jurisdictions handle millions of cases annually, have been buried by their own burgeoning caseloads.

The result in many jurisdictions has been “backlog.” It is not uncommon for civil cases to take five years or more from filing to disposition. Such delays place great financial burdens on litigants, who must wait in queue until the cases filed before them are disposed of. Felony criminal cases take months, even years, to prosecute. Prosecutors, faced with overcrowded local courts and jails on the one hand and public pressure to obtain convictions on the other, have little choice but to “bargain” for guilty pleas, often at reduced charges. Publicity about court delay has resulted in a decaying public perception of the judicial system. “If the courts are to retain public confidence, we cannot let disputes wait two, three, or five years to be disposed of,” Burger told the 1982 annual meeting of the American Bar Association.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
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Nov. 04, 2022  Conservatorships
Jan. 14, 2011  Cameras in the Courtroom
Oct. 22, 1993  Science in the Courtroom
May 27, 1988  Protecting Rights in State Courts
Oct. 07, 1983  Court Backlog
Jan. 16, 1981  Television in the Courtroom
Jun. 03, 1970  Reform of the Courts
Nov. 16, 1960  Congestion in the Courts
Mar. 07, 1956  Cameras in Court
Jul. 18, 1939  Reform of Lower Federal Courts
Feb. 04, 1936  Restriction of Powers of Federal Courts
Apr. 14, 1931  Reform of Magistrates' Courts
Judicial Appointments
Supreme Court History and Decisions