Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said yesterday that state and federal court systems could "literally break down before the end of the century" because of the burden of work being placed on them. He called for a "comprehensive study of the judicial process" to find solutions.
The Supreme Court already is so overburdened that it can no longer perform "in keeping with the standards" expected of it, added Burger, who became the seventh Supreme Court justice to complain about the workload of the nation's courts. Justice John Paul Stevens sparked this renewed interest in the problem, which has been studied and discussed for more than a decade, with a speech in August to the American Judicature Society.
Burger's remarks were in the text of a speech prepared for delivery last night at New York University.
He noted that in 1953, when Earl Warren became chief justice, the Supreme Court had 1,312 cases filed in a term and issued 65 signed opinions. Last term, the court had 4,422 filings and issued 141 opinions.
Referring to recent congressional attempts to limit the high court's jurisdiction, Burger said "the danger does not lie in attacks on the court. Attacks on the court have been going on for at least 180 years.
"The real risk," he said, "is that the institution will be submerged gradually by placing on it burdens that cannot adequately be carried. . . .
"We must face up to the reality that when the demands on the Supreme Court exceed the finite capacity of any nine human beings who could be assembled, they cannot perform the task in keeping with the standards the people of this country have a right to expect."
Burger endorsed a study suggested in legislation passed by the Senate. A three-branch bipartisan commission of 14 members would look at court problems and develop "a long-range plan for the future of our judicial systems."
Burger suggested that special focus be given to ways to resolve disputes outside the judicial system, "the actual structure and administration of the federal court system, the manner in which courts handle cases and methods of resolution of conflicts" among appellate courts.