A GROUP of civil-rights, consumer, environmental and other organizations asked Congress last week to open the doors of the federal courts to certain lawsuits that cannot now be heard. Last week, too, a move got started on Capitol Hill to enlarge the say-so of the courts concerning decisions of regulatory agencies. These seemingly unrelated events raise the ancient question of who is to run the country. Increasingly the answer seems to be: the judges.
If you doubt that, follow the theme of these recent news stories: A judge has been asked to stop the Department of Heath, Education and Welfare from cutting off $90 million in aid from a university. Another judge has barred the Environmental Protection Agency from reducing the amount of sewage dumped into the Pacific Ocean. Another has been asked to keep the tan riffle shell - whatever that is - off the endangered-species list. Still another is trying a case in which Yul Brynner wants $3 million in damages because he got sick after eating spareribs in a restaurant. And an as-yet-undesignated judge, one of these days, will hear the case in which $1 billion in damages is being claimed on behalf of the people who live near Three Mile Island.
The list goes on, but you get the idea. Sometimes it looks as if every conflict, from those that are clearly judicial in nature to those that clearly are not, has been converted into a grandiose lawsuit. Lord Bryce spotted the habit in Americans a century ago and regarded it as not just a fault, but also in some ways a blessing. We wonder if he would be so cheerful about it today.
The Supreme Court has been trying to do something about the lawsuit explosion recently by tightening the rules under which citizens have the right to sue. No doubt there is truth to the complaint that the court has been too sweeping in doing so. But Congress should be leery of opening the doors of the federal courts any wider than they are now - except in narrowly and precisely defined matters. And it should be even more leery of expanding the judges' authority to oversee administrative or regulatory actions.
Judges are having trouble enough keeping control in traditional types of cases in which astronomical amounts of damages are requested, often for publicity or shock value. There is no logic in having these judges also involved in questions concerning sewage in the ocean, the status of the tan riffle shell or the funds paid to a state university. The reason they have been is that it is easier to let people litigate than to write definitive laws and regulations. Something will have to change, or the fears now being expressed about the creation of an "imperial judiciary" will become a reality.