Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. on Thursday implored lawyers to work together and judges to take a more hands-on role to improve a federal litigation system that has grown “too expensive, time-consuming, and contentious.”
Roberts eschewed conflict in his annual Year-End Report on the Federal Judiciary.
The Supreme Court faces a controversial election-year docket that features battles over abortion, affirmative action and the Affordable Care Act, and is being challenged from forces outside the court desiring greater transparency.
But Roberts mentioned none of those issues. Instead, he highlighted changes that went into effect last month in the rules that govern practice in the federal courts, which he said could speed along cases and eliminate gamesmanship over discovery and other delaying tactics.
“I am hardly the first to urge that we must engineer a change in our legal culture that places a premium on the public’s interest in speedy, fair, and efficient justice,” Roberts wrote. “But I am motivated to address the subject now because the 2015 civil rules amendments provide a concrete opportunity for actually getting something done.”
The rules, five years in the making, are of limited interest outside the legal community. But Roberts said they provide an “opportunity to help ensure that federal court litigation does not degenerate into wasteful clashes over matters that have little to do with achieving a just result.”
One of the rule changes involves discovery, the process by which parties to a lawsuit obtain information before trial through depositions, a demand for documents and other procedures that can be unwieldy and time-consuming. Businesses complain that the costs associated with discovery often make settlement a better option.
“The amended rule states, as a fundamental principle, that lawyers must size and shape their discovery requests to the requisites of a case,” Roberts wrote. He said judges must take an active role early in the proceedings to make sure both sides are cooperating.
“A well-timed scowl from a trial judge can go a long way in moving things along crisply,” he wrote.
But he said lawyers must also adapt.
“Most will readily agree — in the abstract — that they have an obligation to their clients, and to the justice system, to avoid antagonistic tactics, wasteful procedural maneuvers, and teetering brinksmanship,” the chief justice wrote.
“I cannot believe that many members of the bar went to law school because of a burning desire to spend their professional life wearing down opponents with creatively burdensome discovery requests or evading legitimate requests through dilatory tactics.”
Roberts’s year-end reports often bring out his inner history major, and this one was no different.
He compared the federal civil procedure amendments to an 1822 publication about dispute resolution: “The Code of Honor; or Rules for the Government of Principals and Seconds in Duelling.’
Roberts said that 22-page booklet stands as “a stark reminder of government’s responsibility to provide tribunals for the peaceful resolution of all manner of disputes.”