The Civil Caseload of the Federal District Courts
Patricia W. Hatamyar Moore
St. Thomas University School of Law
September 19, 2014
University of Illinois Law Review, Forthcoming
St. Thomas University School of Law (Florida) Research Paper No. 2014-05
In the fractious debate about the civil justice system, the dominant narrative of the Civil Rules Advisory Committee is that federal civil litigation takes too long and costs too much and that pretrial discovery is largely to blame. After repeatedly narrowing the federal discovery rules over the last thirty years, the Advisory Committee has recently approved yet another round of rules amendments designed to limit discovery. These proposals have generated an unprecedented amount of passionate (and largely negative) public comment.
Strangely, to justify its position that civil litigation is subject to unacceptable delays, the Advisory Committee has not used the government's own caseload statistics – even those statistics that were instituted in 1990 for the very purpose of measuring "delay." Nor has the Advisory Committee examined caseload statistics to see whether the proportions of different types of civil cases have changed over time, or how those changes might be relevant to its proposed restrictions on discovery.
This article fills in those gaps. Examining the voluminous publicly-available statistics on the federal courts, I offer a radical interpretation: since 1986, instead of an "explosion" of the civil docket, the opposite has occurred: if not quite an implosion, at least stagnation. For example, new civil cases filed since 1986 have grown only 9% since 1986 – a fraction of the rate of growth of the US population and income per capita. In addition, since 1986 there has been an increase in judicial resources available to the district courts, a steady weighted civil caseload per authorized district judge, and a stable median disposition time. It is the criminal docket that has overwhelmed the civil docket, but it is civil litigation that has been the target of endless "reform" efforts.
Moreover, five of the six most prevalent civil case types today are primarily brought by the "have-nots" of society: individuals pressing tort, prisoner, civil rights, labor (particularly Fair Labor Standards Act), and Social Security claims. Of those, civil rights and labor litigants have the most to fear from the pending civil rules amendments. Contract cases, the only one of the top six categories primarily brought by organizations, have fallen to only 9% of civil case filings. Much federal tort litigation has coordinated pretrial discovery in conjunction with multidistrict litigation. There is little discovery in prisoner or Social Security litigation. Accordingly, it is difficult not to wonder if the pending rules amendments are aimed primarily at civil rights and labor cases.
The Article concludes by counseling against uncritical acceptance of charges that federal civil litigation is in crisis without taking account of the government's own caseload statistics. Rather than inexorable growth, the federal civil caseload has been relatively stable for over twenty-five years.
Number of Pages in PDF File: 65
Date posted: March 29, 2014 ; Last revised: October 20, 2014
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