NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Appeals Courts Juggle Increasing Caseloads

March 15, 1999

Federal Appeals Courts -- second in importance only to the Supreme Court -- are handing down one-word rulings in a growing number of cases as they try to cope with steadily growing numbers of appeals, legal scholars report. The result is a two-level justice system is emerging, in which tens of thousands of cases are decided with a single word, such as "affirmed." Critics charge that people's legal rights are often damaged under this system.

  • Fewer than half of all federal appeals cases are argued before judges and only one-fourth of decisions are rendered in full published opinions.
  • Complex civil rights, antitrust and other cases that appeals judges deem important continue to get detailed consideration.
  • But entire classes of cases deemed routine -- such as petitions from prison inmates and individuals' disability claims under Social Security -- get abbreviated attention as staff lawyers sort out cases to recommend for full hearings.
  • The number of cases appeals courts handle grew from 33,360 in 1985 to 53,805 last year.

Legal scholars say the abbreviated opinions are so succinct that it is impossible to determine the facts in many cases or the reasons for the judges' ruling.

Lawyers in one case involving a one-word decision are asking the full 12-member U.S. Appeals Court for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta to review the decision -- as well as the entire streamlined process. The case has attracted national attention among defense lawyers, partly because the Atlanta court is known as one of the architects of the abbreviated appeals procedures.

Source: William Glaberson, "Caseload Forcing Two-Level System for U.S. Appeals," New York Times, March 14, 1999.


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