Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., noting that the number of cases on the Supreme Court’s docket has declined, used his year-end report on the state of the federal judiciary to praise federal trial judges, whose workload is by many measures much larger.
In the term that ended last June, the Supreme Court issued 62 decisions in argued cases, down from 66 in the previous term. That amounts to about eight majority opinions per justice, even accounting for the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in February, and is a steep drop from the more than 150 decisions the court issued per year in the early 1980s.
“While the Supreme Court is often the focus of public attention,” the chief justice wrote in the report, released on Saturday, “our system of justice depends fundamentally on the skill, hard work and dedication of those outside the limelight.” He said the job of a trial judge was in some ways harder than his own.
For starters, “the typical federal judge has more than 500 cases on the docket,” an amount that he called “a daunting workload.”
A trial judge’s work, he added, presents many vexing challenges.
“District judges are the first to encounter novel issues, and they must resolve them without the aid of guiding precedent,” the chief justice wrote. “Because they work alone, district judges do not have the benefit of collegial decision-making or the comfort of shared consensus. And because of the press of their dockets, they face far more severe time and resource constraints than their appellate brethren.”
Congress has authorized 673 district judgeships, along with four territorial ones. According to the Administrative Office of the United States Court, there are 84 vacancies.
In the fiscal year that ended in September, there were about 369,000 new district court filings. A single Supreme Court decision, in Welch v. United States, accounted for a 55 percent increase in lawsuits against the United States, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, as that decision allowed some prisoners convicted under the Armed Career Criminal Act to challenge their sentences.
Other statistics reflected a strengthening economy, with bankruptcy filings dropping to their lowest level since 2007. “From 2007 to 2010, bankruptcy filings rose steadily,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “but they have fallen in each of the last six years.”
Most cases in the district courts end in plea bargains, settlements or pretrial dismissals. But the few that go to trial, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, present special challenges to district court judges.
“As the singular authority on the bench, he must respond to every detail of an unscripted proceeding, tempering firm and decisive judgment with objectivity, insight and compassion,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “This is no job for impulsive, timid or inattentive souls.”
As he did in last year’s report, Chief Justice Roberts welcomed recent revisions to the rules governing civil litigation in the federal courts. “Litigation is costly,” he wrote in the new report, “and everyone benefits if disputes can be resolved efficiently with minimal expense and delay.”
Critics say the overhaul placed excessively strict limits on the pretrial exchange of information that lawyers call discovery, and made it too easy for judges to dismiss cases at their earliest stages. But Chief Justice Roberts said the new rules gave district court judges important tools to control their dockets.
“The reforms are beginning to have a positive effect because already extremely busy judges are willing to undertake more active engagement in managing their dockets, which will pay dividends down the road,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote. “A lumberjack saves time when he takes the time to sharpen his ax.”