THOSE CRIES for help emanating from San Francisco just over a week ago were not coming from the poor, the persecuted or the protesting, but from two members of one of America's most elite and powerful institutions, the Supreme Court. The justices, we are told, are overburdened, overworked and overextended, and they want some relief from the crushing workload. It's a serious complaint and it's not new, but what was unusual was the sense of frustration that characterized the speeches, in particular that of Justice John Paul Stevens, who addressed the American Judicature Society Aug. 6.
Justice Stevens tells us that each justice must review 100 petitions for certiorari -- requests for the court to decide a case -- each week and that is too much to handle in addition to the work of actually deciding approximately 180 cases a year. He would create a new court that would take over the work of deciding what cases the Supreme Court should hear. He also urged greater restraint by the justices themselves in accepting cases of less than national importance and suggested that conflicts in the interpretation of legislation might best be resolved by Congress rather than the court.
Justice Lewis F. Powell, speaking at the American Bar Association meetings, urged Congress to consider a series of proposals designed to lessen the burdens of the federal court system. These include limiting the cases in the Supreme Court to those the justices choose to hear, eliminating the right of citizens to sue in federal court because the litigants are citizens of different states, restricting the right to petition for a writ of habeas corpus and limiting some suits in federal court by state prisoners.
There is a full agenda for Congress to consider in these two speeches, and Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.) has already started. In a thoughtful speech, he offered a set of proposals, similar to that mentioned by Justice Stevens, for intermediate courts that would make some of the decisions now passed on to the Supreme Court. There could be an "entrance court," deciding what the high court should hear, or an "exit court" to handle cases referred by the Supreme Court. Sen. Heflin highlighted studies that have been done by national commissions on this problem over the last 10 years and suggested that their recommendations be reviewed as well. The proposals mentioned by Justice Powell are all now before Congress, and consideration surely will be expedited by these speeches.
Attorneys with considerable experience before the Supreme Court have raised some questions, however, that deserve consideration even before broad legislation is enacted. Are the petitions for certiorari really as burdensome as their numbers indicate, or aren't most of them quite easily decided in a short time? Is there a real danger that important cases will be overlooked in the mass of work when each petition is reviewed by each justice and by dozens of highly trained law clerks? Is it necessary for the justices to cram a year's work into nine months, exacting a price in stress for a three-month vacation enjoyed by no other judges or federal employees? Can't the pace of the year's work be adjusted so that more oral arguments are held early in the term and more time is reserved for writing opinions in the latter months? Isn't the problem of judicial restraint mentioned by Justice Stevens one that can only be solved by the justices themselves who continue to accept too many cases, write opinions that are unnecessarily long and insist on multiple concurring and dissenting opinions? Legitimate questions, we think, and worthy of consideration by court and Congress as the judicial workload is assessed in the months ahead.