Any conversation with attorneys, the public or clients about the appellate court systems in the District of Columbia seems to turn inevitably to one topic: delay in reaching decisions by those courts.
For years, the U.S. Court of Appeals has been respected and even held in awe by academicians and many attorneys, who especially admire the innovational quality of that court's opinions. At the same time, despite the court's protestations about the complexity of the cases it hears and its horrendous backlog, the court's reputation for sloweness is continuing.
In fact, the federal appellate court's penchant for writing lengthy opinions about obscure legal issues and seemingly interminable deliberations over some pending cases is a standing joke in some corners of the legal community. The court has tried to speed its processes by appointment study committees and having additional judges appointed, but the complaints from the bar and public continue.
The D.C. Court of Appeals, which handles cases from the local court system, has fared little better. A recent D.C. Bar study committee looking at its operations has concluded that, "unquestionably, the most serious issues with respect to the court is the backlog of cases and the consequent inordinant delay in rendering decisions."
Although noting that the local appellate court was now resolving cases in an average of 15 months instead of its previous 15 1/2 months, the committee chaired by Charles Horsky made it clear that further progress must be made. The committee noted, for example, that it would take about nine months for the court to clear its dockets even if no more appeals were filed.
Many people have been advocating that one way to clear up the local appellalte court system backlog would be to create a new, intermediate court of appeals. The committee does not think such a plan is politically or economically feasible in a city that already has serious financial problems.
However, the committee did not just throw up its hands at that point, It has made some reasoned suggestions that require the most serious study available.
The panel suggests, for example, that parties to a case be given the option when they file an appeal to forego any written opinion in the case.The agreement might be that the case would be decided within 30 days if everyone agrees a written opinion is unnecessary.
Other suggestions, all of which seem to have merit, include:
Discouraging some appeals by charging interest on a monetary award during the time it is pending at the prime interest rate instead of the outmoded figure of 6 percent.
Increased use of senior judges, especially in the area of handling settlements of cases on appeal.
Temporary expansion of the court from nine to 12 judges.
The latter proposal to expand temporarily the court probably is the most unusual and is likely to be the most controversial. However, the panel's plan makes a lot of sense.
The three judges would be added with the provision that when a judge retires, or is retired upon reaching the age of 70, that slot would not be filled until the court returns to the present figure of nine judges.
Given the ages of sitting judges and the lengths of their service, the effect of the plan would be to increase the size of the court for five to nine years -- or just long enough to make a sizable dent in the backlog.
Add to that some internal policing of the court's tendency to write longer opinions (also cited unfavorably by the bar committee), along with some decent judicial restraing, and the backlog problem might disappear.
Ending the backlog would allow the D.C. Appeals Court to sit as a full court more often -- instead of in three-judge panels as it now normally sits -- and make it more equal to Supreme Courts in state judicial systems.
And that is an admirable goal.