CHIEF JUSTICE Burger addressed the leaders of the American Bar last night in New Orleans and he appealed to them for help. The Supreme Court is swamped, the ever-increasing caseload can no longer be managed, and the quality of work produced by the court will begin to suffer if help is not forthcoming. The chief justice did not propose a detailed, permanent solution to this growing crisis, but he did describe a number of alternative proposals, and he asked the members of his audience for their ideas.
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court had 1,463 cases on its docket and issued 65 signed opinions. Last year, the court had 5,311 cases on its docket and issued 141 opinions. The dramatic increase is due to a number of factors. In the time during which Chief Justice Burger has served on the court, Congress has enacted more than 100 statutes creating new causes of action; in the last decade, the number of licensed attorneys has almost doubled; in 30 years, the number of federal judges has gone from 279 to 647, but the number of Supreme Court justices who hear appeals from all these courts--and from state courts as well--has and must remain constant at nine.
Not only are the cases more numerous, they are more complex. Chief Justice Burger attributes this to "the growth of the country, changes in science and engineering, the increasing complexity of the structure of business and industry, the enlargement of rights of individuals, changes in the relationships of people to government and, underlying all this, the increasing litigiousness of our people." The workload problem has been growing gradually, and was not unanticipated, though the chief justice says that "it might be better if that were the case, because a sudden disaster galvanizes people, raises the adrenalin, sharpens the intellect, energizes them to meet the crisis."
What is to be done? The chief justice proposes that Congress create a commission to study the caseload problem--though two distinguished commissions did so in the early '70s--and that an intercircuit tribunal be set up for five years. This court would be composed of a rotating group of judges already sitting on the circuit courts of appeals; they would hear all cases arising out of conflicting decisions in federal appeals courts throughout the country, thus relieving the Supreme Court of perhaps a third of the cases in which it now hears argument. The idea is similar to one proposed in legislation introduced by Rep. Robert Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) and cosponsored by the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) during the last Congress. Sen. Howell Heflin (D-Ala.), a former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, has also sought to bring the attention of Congress to this problem.
Seven members of the Supreme Court have, in the last six months, spoken publicly on the court's increasing burdens. Twice, the ABA House of Delegates concluded that there is an "urgent need" for reform. The chief judicial officer of the United States does not often ask for legislation, but when he does, his request deserves a serious hearing by Congress.