A subcommittee of the D.C. Judicial Planning Committee has strongly recommended that an intermediate appellate court be established to reduce the growing workload of the D.C. Court of Appeals.
In a 241-page report, the subcommittee said the nine-judge Court of Appeals has resorted to having three-judge panels-instead of the full court-hear most of its cases lin an effort to cut down on a heavy backlog of pending appeals. Since 1971, when the court was established, its caseload has doubled, the report said.
"The average time from notice of appeals to decision has steadily risen from about eight months in 1971 (when the court was established) to a 1978 average of nearly 16 months," the report said. "Clearly, major action is urgently required to provide appellate relief in the District of Columbia."
"We've come to the tentative conclusion that the best solution to the Court of Appeals caseload problem is to create a new appellate court level," said John W. Douglas, chairman of the nine-member subcommittee. "A lower appellate court would leave the Court of Appeals-the highest court in the city-free to consider matters of lawmaking, rather than spending so much time correcting the errors of the trial courts."
Under the recommendatiions, the current full panel of Court of Appeals judges would hear only cases related to interpreting or clarifying the law. Three-judge panels from the new intermediate court would be used to correct errors made in the lower courts, the report said.
The full court now makes only about 1 percent of the high court's decisions. The remainder of the cases are decided by majority vote of three-judge panels. Texas is the only other state in which two judges can make an ultimate decision at the appellate level, and that authority is limited to criminal cases, the report stated.
The proposal for an intermediate appellate court of seven judges would require approval by the City Council and by Congress before it could be implemented. The court would cost an estimated $700,000 a year to operate.
Before 1971, the city's highest court was the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia. The D.C. Court of Appeals was essentially an intermediate appellate court and "properly performed its error-correcting tasks" through hearings before three-judge panels.
When the D.C. Court of Appeals became the highest court in the city, it assumed the added responsibility for "making common law, construing local legislation and maintaining decisional consistency" in the court system, the report said.
Public hearings on the subcommittee report are scheduled for May 30 and 31 at the office of the D.C. Bar in the Woodward Building, 15th and H streets NW.