Chief Justice Warren E. Burger yesterday urged Congress to consider trimming federal judges' power to set aside state court criminal convictions.
Burger previously has advocated such limits for lower federal courts, but for the first time, he specifically suggested that Congress should impose the restrictions.
Federal court dockets are often crowded with state prison inmates looking for a constitutional error of one kind or another to use to have their convictions overturned. The proceedings also often result in important rulings on the reach of the constitution in protecting criminal defendants.
Burger, who as chief justice heads the federal court system, make the request to Congress in his annual "Year-End Report on the Judiciary." Copies of the 30-page report were sent to members of Congress, reporters and others.
A burgeoning number of court cases presents "real threat to the quality of federal justice," Burger also said.
Burger pointed to nearly 250,000 cases filed before district and circuit courts and the high court and said, "The future gives no promise of relief."
Burger said filings before the Supreme Court grew by 4.8 percent for the 1980 term--from October, 1980, to July, 1981--to a total of 4,174. Circuit courts of appeals saw legal filings placed before them grow by 14 percent, to 26,362.
District courts, the frontline of federal justice, were confronted by 211,863 filings, up 7 percent over a year earlier.
"The problem these court filings present is not simply workload on the courts or delay for the litigants, but a real threat to the quality of federal justice," Burger wrote.
He noted earlier warnings that the expanding legal load forces the courts "towards an assembly line model." He said the federal court backlog has tripled since 1960.
Burger repeated his support for boosting the number of federal judges, citing a proposal before Congress to create 11 new circuit judgeships and add 23 judges to district courts.
The chief justice also pressed for better pay and benefits for judges. Citing the ill effect of inflation on judges' salaries, he said that to have the same buying power as in 1969, a district judge should be making $118,035, and an appeals court judge should get $125,710.
Burger quoted federal appeals court Judge Carl McGowan, who in a lecture earlier this year urged Congress to consider sharply limiting what is called federal "collateral review" of state criminal preceedings.
"Judge McGowan has made an important point, and I hope Congress will promptly consider limiting federal collateral review of state court convictions to claims of manifest miscarriages of justice," Burger said.
Burger cited as his reason for requesting the curbs: "The administration of justice in this country is plagued and bogged down with lack of reasonable finality of judgments in criminal cases."