THERE WAS SNICKERING five years ago when Chief Justice Warren E. Burger suggested that Congress create something he called a judicial impact statement. But nobody ought to be snickering now. The federal court system is buried in cases and many of them are the result of legislation that Congress has passed in recent years without paying much attention to what the new laws would do to the courts.
The Chief Justice renewed his plea over the weekend in Seattle and documented his argument unusually well. He noted that earlier this month Congress directed that all cases arising under the emergency natural gas bill be handled by the Emergency Court of Appeals. That sounded fine when it was proposed, especially since that court was set up in 1973 to handled such cases.But guess what? Congress never provided any judges for it. Its members are drawn from other federal courts and 13 different judges have sat on it in the last four yours in order to spread the work around. And Congress, of course, never provided the other courts with new judges to replace those who were being used on this new one.
The same thing happened with the railroad reorganization act. Congress created a special three-judge court to handle the bankrupcies of the eastern railroads, but provided no judges for it and no replacements for the three jundges who were pulled from other courts to sit on it.
The lesson is obvious. Congress ought to do what the Chief Justice wants. It created environmental impact statements to help all of us understand better the effect on the world around us of various federal projects. It has created its own internal budget impact statements so its members can have an idea of how much a particular proposal will cost in future years. It ought to do the same kind of thing for the courts so it can provide enough judges to handle efficiently and expeditiously the cases it wants decided.
The present situation is absurd. The Chief Justice says the federal courts now need 132 new judges just to keep up with their present work. If he is right - and the evidence suggests his number is in the ball park - the judiciary is falling farther and farther behind every day.